‘You’ve got the wrong guy!’
In Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful 1956 movie The Wrong Man, Henry Fonda plays Manny Ballestero, a jazz musician mistakenly arrested as a hold-up man who can’t convince the authorities they’ve got the wrong guy.
Larry Bowman knows the feeling. It happened to him.
Bowman is a civil engineer who works for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and lives in Willows. On Friday, Feb. 28, 2003, he was sitting in the local Denny’s restaurant waiting for his food to arrive. He’d just gotten back in town after five days in Folsom, where he’d been working at Folsom Dam, and he was hungry.
A Willows police officer came in, approached him, and asked him to step outside. “Are you Lawrence Charles Bowman?” he asked. When Bowman said he was, the cop stated, “You’re under arrest.”
Thus began a nightmare case that would last more than five years and be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The federal warrant was out of the Midwest. It said Bowman had illegally transported and sold drug paraphernalia. “You’ve got the wrong guy,” Bowman insisted, but nobody listened, even though the only identifying information on the warrant was Bowman’s name.
He was booked and tossed into the Glenn County Jail. Because it was the weekend, he was stuck there at least until Monday. He made arrangements for his teenaged daughter to stay at a friend’s house and waited.
Meanwhile, no effort was made to find evidence of Bowman’s supposed crimes. His house wasn’t searched; his computer wasn’t seized.
On Monday two U.S. marshals came to his cell and called his name. “I thought I was finally getting out of this thing,” he said during a recent interview in the living room of the modest but pleasant home he shares with his wife, Mira Flor. Bowman, 54, is a solidly built man of medium height with sandy-brown hair and a short dark-brown moustache and soul patch.
Instead of setting him free, the marshals drove him to the Sacramento County Jail.
That afternoon he was assigned a public defender and went before a district court judge, accused of nine counts of conspiracy to sell marijuana smoking accessories.
“You’ve got the wrong guy,” he told the judge.
“In that case,” the judge replied, “do you want an identity hearing?”
That’s when Bowman made a mistake that would come back to haunt him. Figuring he couldn’t deny he was Lawrence Charles Bowman and having nothing else to go on, he waived his right to the hearing. His attorney said nothing.
He was released late Monday afternoon on his own recognizance but told he would have to be in district court in Des Moines, Iowa, a week later, on March 10, for arraignment.
Bowman felt like the sky had fallen. He had four business days to figure out what to do and how to do it. “I said to myself, ‘Holy shit, I don’t even know where to begin.’ “
He started calling lawyers in Des Moines. The first wanted $50,000 as a retainer and another $25,000 if the case went to trial. The second wanted even more. Finally, he found Alfredo Parrish, who was willing to take the case for $15,000 and another $10,000 if it went to trial. Bowman borrowed the money from his 401(k) plan.
He was also able to obtain a waiver allowing him not to be present at the arraignment.
By this time people in Willows were starting to ask him about the arrest. It had been listed in the “Police Log” section of the Sacramento Valley Mirror newspaper.
Bowman went to talk with Tim Crews, the paper’s editor and publisher, and told him his story. Crews jumped on the Internet and discovered that Bowman’s bust had been part of two Drug Enforcement Agency sting operations—dubbed Operations Pipe Dreams and Headhunter—and that, whoever the real Bowman was, he was one of 50 people throughout the West targeted for illegally trafficking in drug paraphernalia.
Further research revealed that all the DEA agents knew about the real Bowman they’d gotten from a woman who’d once met him. She knew his name—Lawrence C. Bowman—and described him as a 60-year-old man with gray hair. How that “C” became “Charles” is unknown.
Even Bowman’s attorney didn’t believe him. He kept coming back with plea-bargain offers promising no prison time. “No, absolutely not,” Bowman told him. “They’ve got the wrong guy! How many times do I have to tell you?”
He finally convinced Parrish of his innocence when he presented records of where he was working on every date mentioned in the indictment.
Meanwhile, the DEA had captured one of Bowman’s supposed partners, a man named Alan Bruce Clute. When Clute didn’t pick Bowman out of a photo lineup, the Justice Department dropped all charges. The date was Oct. 1, 2003.
By then Bowman had spent countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars trying to prove his innocence. He wanted his money back, plus a sweetener for the inconvenience.
He filed under terms of the so-called Hyde Amendment, which allows the wrongfully prosecuted to recover expenses. But because he’d waived an identity hearing and the prosecution in his case had taken a long time in discovery, the six-month statute of limitations had run out.
“Now I was really pissed at that PD in Sacramento,” he said. “She should have told me not to waive it.”
He appealed to the 8th District Court, but was turned down. So he ponied up another $1,800 and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court declined to hear the case.
Meanwhile, he’d been writing every senator, representative and newspaper editor he could think of about his case, to no avail.
“Only [local Rep.] Wally Herger was willing to listen,” he said. “His office was so helpful….” Bowman wiped a tear from his eye. “They were the only ones who put any effort into trying to help me out.”
The congressional liaison for veterans affairs suggested he file under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which he did. For a year he heard nothing back, then got the news that the claim had been denied—again, time had run out.
Low on money and options, he decided to file suit in district court, serving as his own attorney. By now it had been four years since his arrest.
“I went down to the courthouse, told them what I wanted to do, and they gave me a packet of instructions,” he said. He paid the $350 filing fee and sued in Sacramento District Court.
By this time he’d hired another attorney as a consultant. He suggested Bowman see if the DEA would negotiate a settlement. So Bowman went to the federal building in Sacramento and talked with an assistant U.S. attorney there, Robert E. Wright.
Wright got nowhere with the DEA and eventually filed to dismiss the case. Bowman then threatened to sue for malicious prosecution. Give me a letter, Wright said; Bowman gave him an inch-thick brief with documents, and Wright took it to the DEA. Finally, in March, the agency agreed to pay his legal fees but nothing more. The amount was $31,500. Bowman took it.
“At least now the story is out there and it’s straight and it’s true,” he said. “I felt there wasn’t any justice. I feel better now.”