Shaun Attwood came to Phoenix in 1991 from a small industrial town in England with the intent of becoming rich stockbroking.
However, after feeling burnt out from the stressful job, Attwood began using Ecstasy. That choice would change his life forever.
“We were so arrogant when we were running around and doing these drugs,” he said. “We used to joke around that were above the law, and we felt we were living like this ‘Pulp Fiction’ style of life.”
Attwood was later arrested and spent six years in jails in Arizona, which prompted him to start a blog and, after his release, publish a book.
Attwood said England was in a recession when he finished school.
“I had two aunts living in Phoenix, and they said, ‘It’s booming out here, just hop on a plane, and you’ll easily get a job with your accent,’” he said. “I didn’t have any money. I just came here with my student credit card.”
As a stockbroker, Attwood said it took him five years to be the biggest producer in the office where he worked. He was grossing $500,000 in commission a year.
“I became a millionaire,” he said. “I had enough money to retire, and I put that money into retirement shares.”
Attwood said he eventually started to feel burnt out from the stockbroking business. Getting up early to accommodate the New York business hours made him want to turn to some kind of relief.
Attwood said it was the stress that pushed him into the party scene.
“I started to remember doing Ecstasy as a student, and I wanted to get that feeling again to sort of relieve some of the stress I was having,” he said.
Attwood said he started dealing Ecstasy in Tempe.
“I was getting Ecstasy for me and my friends,” he said “We were having a little apartment party in Rancho Murietta behind the Quadrangle Village in Tempe, Arizona.”
Attwood said more and more people started showing up to parties and that he was practically giving the drugs away at first because he wanted to show off.
“I thought I was Mr. Cool Guy from all the attention I was getting,” he said. “At the time, I had more money than common sense.”
Attwood said he started to see the business potential from drug dealing and applied everything he had learned from his business studies to dealing Ecstasy. Under the influence of drugs, he was having the time of his life.
“When you make these decisions on drugs, you think it is the most brilliant idea in the world,” he said. “The drugs are telling you that you’re going to get away with it and that you are Mr. Cool Guy.”
Attwood said that was how he began competing with Sammy “The Bull” Gravano and how he started to get serious threats from him.
Attwood said Sammy “The Bull” set up his Ecstasy ring while he was in Tempe.
“I met his son while I was in prison, and his son told me that he had been dispatched as part of a team to kidnap me from a nightclub and kill me,” he said. “They had just missed me that night.”
Because he was on drugs, he didn’t comprehend all of the dangerous situations he had put himself in, Attwood said.
When Attwood started getting death threats from competitors, he began to realize the dangers of his new lifestyle. He said the money he was getting wasn’t worth jeopardizing his safety.
“I met a young woman who would later become my girlfriend, and she steered me away from drugs,” he said. “I actually settled down and got an apartment in Scottsdale with her and thought I had gotten away with everything.”
Attwood said it wasn’t his brightest idea to break the law in Arizona.
A year after he quit the Ecstasy business, a SWAT team came and arrested him at his apartment in Scottsdale.
“I was naïve to the statute of limitations at the time,” Attwood said.
Attwood was sentenced for nine-and-a-half years and ended up serving six of them.
“If I had gone to trial and lost, they would have stacked all my charges to a maximum 200-year sentence,” he said.
Attwood said his parents had to remortgage their house to come up with $100,000 to get a private lawyer.
“If you don’t have a private lawyer, you’re basically hung out to dry,” he said.
Jail was all about raw survival. Attwood said he was cramped into cells where violence was constantly breaking out.
“People’s heads were getting smashed against toilets, bodies (were) thrown around and everything you had in your everyday life just goes straight out the window,” he said.
Attwood said in the beginning, he pined for his old lifestyle and resented getting caught. However, he said that over time, jail did him a lot of good.
“It made me see the harm drug dealing causes people,” he said. “Most of the guys in jail were all drug addicts, and they were further down the road of drug use than me.”
Attwood said two-thirds of those incarcerated were shooting up heroin and crystal meth and that many of them had Hepatitis C from sharing needles.
“I was constantly worried that someone was going to smash me,” he said. “I’m not a tough guy, and if I had been there on my own, I would not have survived.”
Former ASU student Allan MacDonald was in jail with Shaun. He said he had heard that there was an Englishman in the yard and people wanted to scam him.
MacDonald said that he asked Attwood to start going to “dinner with him.”
“In jail, that means, ‘He’s with us,’” MacDonald said.
MacDonald said he thinks Attwood is a good guy and that he simply made an error in judgment.
“He is an honest person who is trying to make amends for what he did,” he said. “His only weakness is that he is naïve and will believe anybody.”
MacDonald said he has sued Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio several times.
“He is a piece of work,” he said. “He doesn’t think the Constitution applies to him.”
Arpaio is known by many for his tough stance on illegal immigration, as well as crime. He has proclaimed himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”
According to Maricopa County Risk Management, more than 6,000 claims and lawsuits have been filed against Arpaio since he was elected in 1993.
Maricopa County has had to pay $1.5 million to settle two federal lawsuits against Arpaio after he was accused of unethical and unconstitutional tactics.
MacDonald said despite all that has happened, he is not angry with Arpaio anymore.
Attwood said green bologna and moldy bread was the breakfast.
“Sometimes they were these crazy psychedelic colors and they looked like works of art,” he said. “But we were so hungry that we just brushed off the mold and put it in water to get it down.”
Attwood said the evening meal was called “red death” by many of the inmates.
“It looked like vomit blended with blood, he said. “It had all kinds of random meat in it, and it stunk.”
Attwood said he remembers one occasion where he found a dead rat, which a guard said was a potato, in his food.
During the 26 months he was in jail, Attwood said he lost 28 pounds.
“I was basically living off peanut butter and Snickers bars,” he said.
Attwood said whenever Arpaio came into the jail, everyone would start yelling and screaming obscenities at him.
He would come in with bodyguards who he calls “The Goon Squad” and they would threaten the prisoners, he said.
“Some of the guards said they couldn’t stand the guy,” he said. “One of them came up to me and said the real world doesn’t understand what’s going on in here.”
That’s what motivated him to write about his experiences on a blog, Jon’s Jail Journal, under a pseudonym to hide his identity.
Attwood said he was allowed a small pencil and he wrote what he saw and then smuggled the journal entries to his aunt. His family members typed what he wrote into the blog.
“It was so hot in there and to this day, the paper on which I wrote my experiences on is all wrinkled from my sweat,” he said.
Journey through literature
Attwood said he went through a big psychological journey and read many different books to understand himself, which really changed the way he thought.
“In the jail system, it was very difficult to get books,” he said. “But once I was sentenced and sent to prison, I was allowed some books.”
Attwood said he was only allowed seven books in his cell.
“At one point, readers of my blog sent so many books, they were delivered to me in a wheelbarrow,” he said. “The guard who brought them to me said he would turn the other way and let me have them all.”
Attwood said thanks to the kindness of blog readers around the world, the prison library was filled with quality books.
“It was a ‘Shawshank Redemption’ moment,” he said.
Attwood said his sister has a degree in classical literature, and when he told her in 2006 that he had read 264 books that year, she couldn’t believe it.
“Her exact words were, ‘You lucky bugger,’” he said.
English lecturer Rosemarie Dombrowski read Attwood’s blog, which she found when it was named “Best Prison Blog” by the Phoenix New Times.
“I learned within the first 30 minutes of perusing through his blog that he was a fantastic writer,” she said. “He could craft a narrative and tell a human story with humor and authenticity in a way that I’ve never really read before and my thought was, ‘I have to talk to this guy,’”
Dombrowski said they talked a lot about writing, philosophy and spirituality through letters.
“I felt like we were peers and we were friends, and we were both struggling to become vegetarians,” she said. “After I got to know him a little bit, I started to recommend books to him.”
She said she would mail him books through Amazon.
Dombrowski said she recently reconnected with Attwood on Facebook and was really happy to do so because upon his release, he was deported back to the U.K.
“I was pretty certain that I was never going to meet him face-to-face at that point,” she said.
Dombrowski said two years ago, she had a freshman come into her office during the first week of classes and said, “I wanted to meet you personally because you were mentioned in Shaun Attwood’s prison memoir.”
“I was unbelievably flattered,” she said. “It was my Facebook status for the next month.”
Attwood said people coming into and leaving prison get this crazy expression on their faces because of all the emotional undercurrents.
“I’m wondering how I’m going to adjust,” he said. “When I was finally released, it took me about a year to finally start thinking normally again.”
Attwood said in jail, he was conditioned to react to certain things and he had to readjust to everyday life. He said he remembers following his mother around like a puppy dog awaiting orders.
Today, Attwood gives more than 100 talks a year at schools and colleges.
“Kids don’t listen to their parents or teachers about drugs, but they seem to pay attention when I tell them my own story,” he said.
Attwood said talking to schools has helped restore his karma from all the mistakes he has made in the past.
“I can’t change my past, so all I can do is move forward,” he said.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @KelcieGrega