Cell Phoney

Making phone calls from jail, Harley Mike allegedly helped three prisoners escape and conned parole agents, sheriff's deputies, and judges.

A semicircle of purple-yellow bruising wraps around the left eye of Harley Mike as he sits in a brightly lit room. On top of his jail pallor, a constellation of red welts dots his forehead. The skin around his ankle has turned an unhealthy near-black color.

The damage to his face, says Harley Mike, is the product of a pummeling meted out by San Francisco Sheriff's Department deputies; the contusion on his ankle, he claims, was caused by a deputy who sadistically overtightened the cuffs binding his feet together.

He may be telling the truth. Or he may not.

Sheriff Michael Hennessey, pointing to paperwork on the phone system, watches over some 2,200 inmates in five jails.
Associated Press
Sheriff Michael Hennessey, pointing to paperwork on the phone system, watches over some 2,200 inmates in five jails.
Banged up and bruised, Fitzwater displays a wound.
James Sanders
Banged up and bruised, Fitzwater displays a wound.

It's never totally clear with Harley Mike, who is currently residing in the county lockup at 850 Bryant St. He is, after all, a self-described drug addict and inveterate felon, facing not one but two trials — the first on charges of impersonating a police officer on more than 100 occasions, the second for allegedly conspiring to smuggle a methamphetamine-drenched birthday card into the jail's maximum-security wing.

This much, however, is certain: Harley Mike, whose legal name is Michael Fitzwater, is one of the more remarkable characters circulating through the S.F. underworld, an alleged scam artist who purportedly pulled a string of audacious cons, hoodwinking parole agents, lawyers, cops, judges, and deputy sheriffs — all while doing time in jail. Court documents portray Fitzwater as an ingenious fraudster who spent his days behind bars devising an intricate scheme to thwart the jail's telephone security system, and, in 2004, engineering a little-publicized jailbreak, an escape that loosed three prisoners and left both the Sheriff's Department and the state Corrections Department looking dim. A man with a multipage rap sheet and very little education, Fitzwater allegedly outwitted his foes in law enforcement and bamboozled the police into believing he was one of them, over and over again.

Fitzwater, for his part, maintains his innocence and has pled not guilty to all the charges. On this afternoon in early August he sits in a gray plastic chair in a small, thick-walled room in the jail's maximum-security wing.

He's a smallish white guy — 5 feet 7 inches, 140 pounds — with a thick fuzz of brown hair and a mouth full of discolored, broken teeth. If convicted on all charges, he could be sentenced to as long as 70 years in the penitentiary, and the specter of permanent incarceration has rattled him. "I'm not sleeping. I'm losing weight," says Fitzwater, who is 41. "I really can't concentrate anymore. I'm really deteriorating as time goes by."

While detectives sniffed out Fitzwater's purported scammery and his trials are looming, the Sheriff's Department, helmed by Sheriff Michael Hennessey, has yet to fix the structural security weakness in the phone system — or figure out precisely how the 2004 escape was orchestrated.

Though Fitzwater won't cop to compromising the phone system, he says "everybody" in the jail knows "there are a couple of different ways to do it."

"The sheriff's department has done nothing about the security breach," says Fitzwater's attorney Robert Amparan. "They're seeking to punish Mr. Fitzwater excessively because they believe there are other people out there who were released."

Fitzwater got stuck with the Harley Mike moniker back in the early 1980s while living in Los Angeles and plying the freeways on a Harley-Davidson Sportster. "I didn't have a license. I didn't have anything. I kept getting it impounded," he recalls, adding that the bike eventually ended up in the hands of the authorities. He loved the organ-jarring rumble of a V-twin hog, the velocity and power of the American-made machines.

Fitzwater, a West Virginia native who grew up in a small Appalachian town, also developed an affinity for the biker's drug of choice: speed.

The drug, in its various incarnations, Fitzwater explains, "kinda filters out any fear I have — fear of being inadequate, for example. Actually, it calms me down. Any anger, any frustration — bam, it's gone." He continues, "Some people say speed is a violent drug. For myself, it never has been." Over the decades he's snorted the stuff, smoked it, and, on occasion, cooked the powder until it liquefied and injected it, although Fitzwater says he's not a huge fan of needles.

After a few years in SoCal, Fitzwater headed north to San Francisco, where, consigned to the ragged fringes of society by addiction — and the criminal behavior required to feed it — he's spent decades drifting, renting rooms in fleabag hotels, camping out on the sidewalk, or dwelling in vehicles. "Mostly, I've stayed in RVs. We get these really nice RVs from City Tow" — a towing company that for many years confiscated vehicles for the city — "for $100 to $500 and stay in those. Anything to avoid paying rent." As a cranked-out urban nomad, Fitzwater developed an aptitude for scoring free electricity by splicing into utility lines and heisting motor vehicles.

Not surprisingly, he's spent years rotating in and out of corrections facilities, accumulating 10 felony convictions — highlights: five busts on auto theft charges, as well as convictions for weed possession and second-degree burglary and doing five stints in state prison. "Being a drug addict, most of the people I know are in custody, on their way to custody, or running from custody," he admits.

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