You Say Terrorist…I Say Terrorized…
January 5, 2011, 9:20pm – Chandler, AZ – I sat at my desk, nervously chain-smoking cigarettes. I hadn’t smoked in nearly a year, but tonight may be my last night of freedom. A cascade of windows swallowed my monitor. The red notification light on my cell phone flashed impatiently. A warm breeze brushed my face as I closed my eyes to run down the checklist one more time. How did I get here? What are all the angles? Where do I go next? Did I miss anything? Am I capable of winning this fight? Is anyone?
I jumped out of my seat and looked out the window into the darkness. The elm tree in front of my window blocked my view of the porch. I couldn’t even see the street.
“Chandler PD – Open the door!”
It’s been 12 hours. I had hoped they realized it was a misunderstanding. There’s no way they truly believed I did anything wrong, or they would’ve come for me 12 hours ago instead of waiting so late into the night.
“I’ll be right down!”
I put my cigarette out in the ashtray on my desk, grabbed my cell phone and laptop, and bounded down the stairs, skipping steps as I descended. I left my cellphone and laptop on the kitchen counter, and opened the door to be greeted by a male and female uniformed police officer.
“Are you Brian Penny?” the man asked.
I looked over their shoulders and counted 3 patrol cars parked in the street in front of my house. I knew they had my house surrounded. Why did they assume I would run? If I was going to flee, I would have done that this morning when I got the first call.
“Are you Brian Penny?” he repeated.
“Yes, and I know why you’re here. I can explain everything. Please come in.”
The man held up his hand. “Brian Penny, are you an employee of Bank of America?”
“Yes, for 3 more hours. Today was my last day. If you’ll please come inside for a moment I can explain everything. I have my laptop and cell phone right here for you to-”
“Brian may we enter the premises?”
This guy is already getting on my nerves…
“Yes. Please do.”
As the officers entered my house, I glimpsed my roommate Alex bent over the trunk of one of the patrol cars. His lips formed unknown words, but the look of surprise in his eyes said everything I needed to know. I could see shadowy figures outside, but it was too dark to tell if they were neighbors or more cops. I closed the door behind them and locked it.
“You said you know why we’re here,” the female officer said, “Would you care to elaborate?”
“I received a text this morning at 10:12am from a colleague. He told me there was a bomb threat at the Bank of America processing center in Chandler. At 12:26 I got a call from a former employee of mine saying you guys evacuated the campus and began questioning people and that my name was brought up. From that point on, I received multiple calls and texts from people stating employees were being questioned by the police regarding any communications they’ve had with me and that my picture was being shown to everyone. I have my phone and internet records on the counter along with my cell phone and laptop to show where I was, who I’ve talked to, and what I’ve been doing all day. I didn’t-”
“So you’re aware there’s been a bomb threat,” the man interrupted, “Please sit down.”
I accepted his offer and sat on my couch in my living room. The woman sat on my love seat a few feet away. The man remained standing near my front door eyeballing me. I stared right back at him unblinking as the woman interjected.
“Why did you leave the bank?”
“It wasn’t the job for me.”
“Are you disgruntled?”
“No ma’am, but I’m very quickly getting there.” I turned toward her. “As early as 7:20 this morning I was on the phone working with their HR department on getting an auditing job that I had applied for.”
“So tell me about what you posted on Facebook today.”
“I have my Facebook profile pulled up on my laptop right now. It’s right there. We can go through it together if you’d like.”
“That won’t be necessary. Can you tell me what you posted?”
“I posted a picture of a funny news headline about Boehner around 7:30am, and then when I found out I was being blamed for a potential bombing, I posted a few status updates to let my friends and family know in case I disappear. I couldn’t recite them word for word, but it’s pulled up on my laptop right now. Everything is time and date stamped by Facebook.”
“What about a comic? Did you post a comic today?”
“No, ma’am. There was a comic I posted in September 2009 that appeared on my profile page because it was in the photo album I uploaded the Boehner photo to. Facebook just recently updated my profile last week. I wasn’t aware that happened until I was told about an hour before you got here. I don’t see my profile when I log in to the site. I only see my back end home screen.”
“So describe this picture you posted today.”
“It’s a picture of John Boehner with a news headline”
“Not that picture. Describe the comic.”
“I didn’t post a comic today. Would you like me to describe the comic that I posted in September 2009? It’s time and date stamped just like everything else on Facebook. We can look at it on my profile right-”
“We already have copies of your profile backed up and saved at the station,” the man interrupted once again, “There’s no point in you deleting anything. We already have what we need.”
“I’m not interested in deleting anything. Like I said, Facebook keeps a time and date stamp for everything. What I’m interested in is showing you my timeline so you can see that I didn’t post a comic today. I posted it 2 years ago.”
“Can you describe the comic?” the woman asked.
“It’s a 3 panel comic with poorly drawn stick figures. In the first panel a man is telling his friend about a new form of alternative energy he discovered that is more efficient than gasoline and safe for the environment. The next panel shows his friend lighting a cigarette. There’s an explosion and in the 3rd panel, they are both blackened like Wile E Coyote and the man says ‘The only downside is it’s highly combustible.'”
“Did you write ‘Bank of America Apocalypse’ on it in red?”
“No. It’s entirely black and white, and I just told you what it says. Up until this afternoon when I found out I’m a bombing suspect, I never posted anything about where I work on Facebook. I’m not that stupid. We can look at my entire timeline right now if you’d like, it’s on my laptop, which is right there on the counter next to my cell phone and internet and phone records.”
“So you didn’t write ‘Bank of America Apocalypse’ on it?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The officers looked at each other. Obviously this was going nowhere. The same line of questioning continued into the night. I never once changed my story. I never once faltered. At one point, Alex was allowed back into the house. We exchanged an awkward glance as he walked by on his way to his room upstairs. The police continued grilling me, trying every way they could think of to get me to confess to a crime we all knew I didn’t commit.
“I’ve gotta be honest with you,” the man said, “You seem like a really nice guy. I like you. What I’m getting out of this is that you were angry at your company and you decided to vent on Facebook. It’s ok. It happens to all of us. I know I vent about my company sometimes when I get home after a bad day. You can make this easier on all of us if you just confess. You’ll do a little time, and this will all be over for you. We understand what it’s like to be disgruntled. Nobody is blaming you.”
“Absolutely not. I didn’t magically predict in September 2009 that I would have to quit my job two years later. I didn’t get fired. I quit because I was blocked from accepting an auditing position. What you really should be asking is why such a large company would go to such great lengths to go after one man who clearly didn’t do anything.”
The man stared at me exasperated. I stared right back at him. A silence engulfed the room. Finally the woman stood up.
“Am I under arrest?” I asked her.
“We’re not taking you in tonight,” the man said, “We have everything we need for right now, but you need to be careful from here on out. Be careful what you post online on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else. It can get you in trouble. We’re watching you. Be aware of that. The bank is watching you. You’ve pissed off a lot of people. You’ve made some powerful enemies today, son.”
“I can see that.”
The man opened the front door as the woman handed me a card.
“This is the contact info for the officer in charge of your case. Call him tomorrow morning, and he can give you more information on what’s going on and what you need to do.”
They walked outside. I put the card in my pocket, pulled out my pack of cigarettes and a lighter, and followed closely behind them. When I got to the porch, I looked around to see 3 police officers standing in the street near their patrol cars. A handful of neighbors stood in their driveways and stared curiously in my direction, whispering to each other. An unusual number of houses were lit up inside for 12:30 on a Wednesday night. This street is usually asleep by 10pm at the latest. At least I didn’t get escorted out in handcuffs, I suppose. Somehow I don’t think that mattered much to anyone but me.
I lit a cigarette and stood on the sidewalk in front of my house, watching the patrol cars leave. My neighbors slowly filed back into their houses to tell their families whatever information they got from watching the drama unfold outside my house and speaking to the police officers. I knew I crossed the point of no return. All I wanted to do was fix the inconsistencies I found in the system. Instead I found myself walking on the wrong side of the law.
I threw the cigarette butt into the street. My hand was shaking as I lit another one, inhaled deeply, and closed my eyes. I don’t even like smoking, but each puff tasted like heaven that night. I went over the checklist in my head again and again. There were too many angles to consider. I knew I couldn’t fight them alone, but how do I find someone to help? They didn’t teach whistleblowing 101 in school. Who can I even trust anymore? What am I going to do with all my free time? Where do I go from here?
Brian Penny is a former business analyst at Bank of America turned whistleblower and freelance writer. He’s a frequent contributor to Mainstreet, Lifehack, and HardcoreDroid. He documents his experiences working with Anonymous, practicing yoga, and fighting the banks on his blog.