A woman who shared my name, Susan Lampert, died a month ago today and her death troubles me.
While we met only a few times - all at the Dane County Farmers' Market - our common name bonded us and we had at least one mutual friend. I wondered if she cringed when she would see me in the newspaper, shooting off my mouth.
I certainly cringed when I finally saw her in the newspaper.
It was last June, when a farm near Lodi was busted as a marijuana- growing operation. Actually, I heard about it because some of my competitors at a rival news organization mistakenly (and gleefully) thought I had been busted.
I hated to ruin their fun.
But the bust was no laughing matter for the other Susan Lampert, who was sent to federal prison for her role in the operation. It was a tragedy that ultimately led to her death at 57.
The last time I saw her, in the mid- 1990s, she was still healthy and working at a Madison research company.
Since then, according to family and friends, she had contracted lupus and also suffered chronic pain from a broken back and depression. She couldn't work and was living on Supplemental Security Income and was on the waiting list for a rent-subsidized apartment in Lodi.
She supplemented her income by selling flowers and vegetables at the Lodi Valley Farmers' Market.
Peg Zaemisch, managing editor of the Lodi Enterprise, wrote a warm tribute after Lampert's death, calling her "The Flower Lady," and describing her typical attire: a big straw hat and brace supporting her tiny body. Zaemisch questioned whether federal prison was too harsh a sentence for an ill woman who had no criminal record.
After an afternoon spent reading Lampert's file at the federal courthouse, I'm angry and sad.
Lampert's daughter, Casey Looze, said her mother moved in several years ago with a longtime family friend, Terrance Larson. She got free rent in exchange for cleaning the house and doing chores on the farm.
Those chores included watering Larson's marijuana seedlings, which Lampert cared for along with her own flower and vegetable seedlings.
"She knew about what was going on," Looze said, of Larson's marijuana dealing.
Her attorney told the court she had hoped to move out, and was afraid of Larson, sometimes spending the night in her car because she had nowhere else to go.
"He started going insane; she was afraid of his temper," Looze said.
Lampert finally got her subsidized apartment, but three days before she was to move in, Columbia County deputies visited the farm after a road rage incident in which Larson forced an elderly couple off the road. The deputies saw and smelled the marijuana.
Lampert, who was away from the farm baby-sitting, turned herself in.
Looze said her mother nearly died while at the Columbia County Jail after her arrest. Looze said she took prescriptions to the jail, but her mother never got them. By the time she was released three days later, she was seriously ill.
"She couldn't walk, talk or chew," Looze said, of her mother's condition following her jail stay. "It was like taking care of a baby."
Lampert's bad luck continued when the case was sent to federal court, and she drew "Maximum John" Shabaz, a judge known for throwing the book at defendants.
Larson, who has a long record of traffic, disorderly conduct and other offenses, admitted selling large quantities of marijuana (most of it grown elsewhere) and forfeited his farm. He got 80 months in prison, and is currently being treated at a prison hospital in Rochester, Minn. (Court documents suggested he suffered from mental illness and drug addiction.)
Lampert also pleaded guilty; her daughter said her lawyer thought she would get no more than probation and a six-month prison term.
A number of Lodi people wrote to Shabaz asking for leniency.
Shabaz said he wondered why, if she had so many friends, none of them offered her a place to live. He also said he imagined that a number of people in Lodi would like to see her locked up.
He's right about that. After Zaemisch wrote the "flower lady" tribute, she and I both got angry unsigned notes from a Lodi parent whose daughter was introduced to marijuana as a high school freshman. The writer said the police and school have to do more about drugs.
I understand the writer's anguish. But I also think our hysteria over drugs has created a court system that doesn't distinguish between the drug kingpins and the little people. I hope the writer stands by her daughter and is there for her so that when life deals out bad luck, it doesn't trap her in a downward spiral of bad decisions and worse consequences.
That's what happened to the woman who shared my name.
Shabaz heard arguments that Lampert was too ill to be sent to prison, but declared that she would get adequate health care there. He sentenced her to 26 months in prison.
Susan Lampert died of congestive heart failure March 2, shortly after being assigned to a minimum-security camp for women east of St. Louis.
"It breaks my heart that she went to federal prison," Looze said, adding that her mother's letters indicated she wasn't getting adequate medical care. "This lady was so sick, so frail. It just breaks my heart."
In the ultimate irony, on March 14, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago sided with Lampert and ordered her conviction vacated. On March 18, Shabaz followed the directive of the higher court and signed an order dismissing the indictment against her.
But by then, the gentle Earth Mother who shared my name had been dead for 16 days.
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