| This is the 477th story of Our Life Logs |
Miami was sleepy in the ‘50s—nothing like the bustling buildings and energy it has now. When my family moved across town, over the canal to 87th street, it was like the world dropped off. Everything beyond that was a bunch of streams, lakes, and (in true Floridian fashion) swamps where you could walk for miles without meeting a soul. I’d walk along the marshes with my fishing pole, exploring all the bugs who clung to the slick grass. I’m not sure how I wasn’t eaten by an alligator for all the time I spent in the marsh.
As I grew older, I knew I wanted to go into the police academy and protect the ever-growing City of Miami. The first time I had ever seen a police officer was way back in my high school days. My older sister brought her boyfriend (who I thought was Captain America) into our home. Turns out, he was a cop. Different uniform, same spirit, I guess. As I got older and I got to know him, I learned a lot about the heart of the career and their “protect and serve” motto. After that, it was all I ever wanted to do because, to me, that’s what you do when you care about people. You protect and serve them.
When I started the academy in about 1972, a lot of the other candidates alongside me were Vietnam Veterans who had seen things far deeper and darker than I had. Now, I wasn’t starry-eyed and oblivious to the way of the world, definitely not. In fact, I had been living with a bunch of seasoned cops who shared the stripped-down version of their jobs with me. But, I don’t think I was the same kind of cop that many others were. This service was my passion.
With about four or five years of experience under my belt, I was approached by some of the detectives in the police department. They asked me if I wanted to go on a stakeout on a house that they anticipated to be burglarized, and I accepted. I thought this could be a good career move for me.
Let me paint the picture of that first stakeout for you.
I sat in the backseat of the detectives’ car as we pulled up to a residential street. The sky was dark, the moon was bright, and the detectives spoke with the confidence of God himself. “Now see that house down there, Larry? There’ll be a powder blue Lincoln that’s gonna pull up to this house. Then a few guys will jump out while the driver speeds away. Fifteen minutes later, the Lincoln will be back and the bad guys will sneak out of the house with bags of stolen goods. Then we’ll cuff ‘em. What do you say?”
It was like clockwork. Amazing. I was stunned by the precision of the detectives’ predictions and the ease of the bust. And then I found out why they were so good. Practice makes perfect, right? Not here. After the burglars were all locked up, I learned that the detectives would set up these crimes to grow their resumes and boost their egos. I knew this because they told me themselves. The driver of the Lincoln was a guy they’d hired. His name was Tippy, and appropriately so. He would call in with an anonymous tip to the police station before saddling up the wagon with a group of his old criminal friends, which made the burglary set-up “legal.” It was that easy. When the next stakeout was set, I didn’t go. As I began distancing myself, the detectives stopped asking.
Sometime later, I was asked to go guard a man in the South Miami ICU with a severe gunshot wound who’d been in a bank robbery. When I walked into the man’s hospital room, I saw that his body was all shot to hell. He kept saying. “Man, I knew I shouldn’t’ve done it.” Over and over. Yeah, shoulda coulda, woulda. “Tippy kept coming at me and I didn’t want to do it. It just looked so easy.”
My heart fell. Oh no, don’t tell me these guys did this one too. There’s no way.
Long story short, these guys supplied Tippy and the bank robbers with all the necessary cargo, the guns, the car, etc. But when it came time for the crescendo, other cops (those who had no part in this paint-by-numbers scheme) showed up. Then things got ugly. Tippy was killed and the other two were shot full of holes.
After that night, the state attorney got involved because they could sense something screwy was happening. Rightly so.
Meanwhile, this entire case was completely off my radar. I was getting fired.
These detectives caught wind that my roommate at the time was going out with a young girl, I’m talking like 15 years old. When these detectives found this out, they reported the situation to the police chief, who then fired me for being associated. Well, here’s the thing. I had no idea that she had been that young! In between work and the gym, I was rarely at home! That didn’t matter. Not to the chief. And not to the media who drug my name every-which-way through the mud.
I couldn’t get a job after that. My reputation had been soiled and wrung out and soiled again. At the time, I thought my roommate had ruined my life—or, maybe it was me? Had I been who I thought I was? My passion had been stripped and I began to doubt myself. Protect and serve. It meant nothing.
And then, my good friend, Vinny, called me up one day. “Look, I know you’re a good guy and I don’t care what they say,” he said. “Want to open a bar with me?” Did I always dream of being a bartender? Not exactly. But that’s how I got into the bar business at the age of 25. For close to the next decade, every night was a party. Lights. Drinks. Music. Money. But what is fun is not always fulfilling. Not for me. I wasn’t helping humanity. I was just sustaining myself.
Now, I’d be lying to you if I said the bar business was no more than a rabbit hole. I have to tell you about Sheri. In 1977 (I’m backtracking here), as I was bartending one night at one of my bars in Miami, I heard some girl screaming at me from down the bar. When I looked over, I saw this beautiful girl (it was Sheri, but I didn’t know that at the time) dancing under a can light. Time slowed down. I don’t know if I fell in love with her that night. I might have.
Unfortunately, time sped back up, the earth got back on its axis, and as soon as I looked up, she was gone. But not forever. A few years down the road, we met formally, this time as coworkers at a bar in Miami that I was helping my buddy open. That was in 1980. She’d gotten married, and so had I. We remained friends anyway, and that was that.
So that’s the good about my 20s and 30s. The bad? Well…life was a cycle of the same old nonsense. And I still carried around the same old hurt in my broken shell. Maybe I thought it was my duty to carry out the rest of my life with broken dreams.
In 1984, I got another life-changing call. My friend who was living out West, who had made himself a great living by selling drugs was on the run from his supplier and, ultimately, the FBI. They had chased him all the way back to Miami, and he planned to outrun them and leave the country. When my friend called, he asked for a ride…which turned into a favor. Would I drive some of the existing “merchandise” to his clients up north? Would I choose to help my friend and also make a few thousand dollars on the side? Sure I would.
I didn’t care one way or another at that point. The way I saw it, my friend was a good bad guy. The cops were bad good guys, and maybe I was somewhere in between. Honestly, none of it made sense anyway.
After a few more drug trips and a few more months of having a fat wallet, I had a warrant out for my arrest. I just accepted it. I went to trial and lost, of course. Five years in prison for drug trafficking. The parole board whittled it down to two years.
It wasn’t like I was splitting the atom or anything. I’d been peddling liquor before the drugs, so what did I care? My world had already collapsed in 1976 when I was let go from the police force. The only thing that really hurt was when I found out that Sheri had just gotten divorced (and so had I). If the stars were different, I thought, maybe we’d be together about now. Truth was, I wasn’t going to go hunt her down and get on my knees. My reality had sealed the doubts I had about ever being good enough for her. And so, in 1988, I started my time in a Florida Federal Prison.
Everyone gets a job when they’re in prison. Mine just so happened to be cutting the grass at the U.S. Army Ranger School that was nearby. A group of us inmates would mow this huge expanse of overgrown, raggedy, middle-of-nowhere-land five days a week. Now, the thing about the landscape in the panhandle of Florida is that whatever blood, sweat, and tears you pour into the cutting and edging during the week, all progress will be lost come Monday.
Maybe I was finally at peace. Maybe I was all-the-way empty. Maybe I was just crazy. Either way, I took a fierce responsibility to that field. That became my field. From sun up to sundown for months on end, I worked like a madman. There came a time when the other guys even said, “You’re making us look bad!” I just kept mowing, though. I got a sense of pride from it.
About six months went by and one of my buddies was nearing the end of his sentence. He knew about my work ethic and was looking for someone to replace him as a facility electrician. He told me that this was a good prison job with a possibility for certification. I didn’t buy it at first, but with some talking to, I went over to the Master Sargent and asked for a transfer.
When I met with Master Sargent LittleJohn, he asked me, “Hi Larry, what can I do for you?”
Can I put this into perspective for you? Transfers happen very rarely in prison work. Honestly. We’re not here to pick and choose what suits us best. So, when the Master Sargent asked what HE could do for ME…it was miraculous. I got the transfer. And it was because one of the rangers had told him about the work ethic I had shown with my grass clippings.
That job in prison changed my life for the better. Incredible, huh? I started by handing tools to the veteran electrician when he asked for them, and then I graduated to handing him the tool before he even asked. Finally, I was allowed to try a few circuit boards myself and, get this, I wasn’t bad at it.
When I left the Florida Federal Prison in 1991, I was 40 years old and scared shitless. I had a chance to live my life over again for the better, or else, be pulled back into the doubt and shame that I’d been dragging around since 1976. No, I wouldn’t go back. I was a new man.
After prison, I lived with my parents while enrolled in a couple courses at a community college. Guess what? I passed those classes. Then, I started working towards my associate’s degree. Again, same outcome. Then, I went to Georgia Tech for my Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. Then Master’s, and finally, my Ph.D.
Obviously, I’m breezing by these details, but trust me. School was hardly a breeze. I will say, however, that life was lighter. I got my sense of passion back, and this time, it was for an area of expertise that I would have never considered in my early years. And now, I “protect and serve” on a much grander scale than ever before. Along with other jobs, I design and develop radar for the U.S. Department of Defense. How “full circle” is that?
Oh, and you may be wondering whatever happened to Sheri. Well, I’m happy to shock you. That girl is now my wife of 26 years. Yep. I asked her out after I had gotten a lot of my confidence back and had started going back to school—okay, maybe I needed a little push from a friend. Okay, maybe my friend had to drag my ass to a payphone and watch me dial her number in order for me to ask her out. I’ll admit, I needed some help, but I got the girl, and I’m a happy man because of her.
I thought I’d ruined my life in 1976. I thought my past would hang on my coattails until the day I died. But I’m here to tell you that “I came back to life.” It was never about who was bad and who was good.
This is the story of Dr. Larry “L.A.” Carastro
L.A. grew up in Miami with the dream of serving his community as part of the Miami police force. After a few years of experience under his belt, L.A. was given the opportunity to join his station’s detective on a stakeout of a potential burglary. Quickly, however, L.A. realized the illegal tactics of these detectives and was later let go from the police force, presumably because he “knew too much.” L.A.’s passion and drive spiraled down the drain until, in 1988, he was sentenced to federal prison. It was in prison that his life changed for the better.
L.A. holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the Georgia Tech, and is on a team that designs and develops radar for the U.S. Department of Defense. He and his wife Sheri have been married for 26 years, and one of their favorite activities to do together is to take their boat on the open waters of the Atlantic. L.A. spends his free time at home with his pet macaw, Zulu.
If you are interested in learning more about L.A.’s story, we encourage you to check out his memoir, The Bus Ride Back. His book was the 2019 winner of Best Nonfiction Indie Originals Award.
This story first touched our hearts on December 17, 2019.
| Writer: Colleen Walker | Editor: Kristen Petronio |
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