Oakland County fugitive hopes appeal cuts life sentence

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — In September 1987, Ronald Reagan was president, gas was 96 cents a gallon and Thomas Xenakis was on the run.

The dark-haired, mustachioed Grosse Pointe native could have fit in as a character on “Miami Vice,” the popular late-’80s TV show. Only, he was a real-life major drug dealer who became a real-life fugitive.

Facing a life prison sentence for possession of more than 982.6 grams of cocaine, extortion and threatening his children’s babysitter with a gun, the 35-year-old Highland Township man bolted Michigan. He forfeited a $188,000 cash bond posted by his father, a retired auto executive, and left behind his hot tub business and his wife and two young children.

“I don’t want to talk about him,” said his wife, who asked not to be named.

“It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I’m still trying to heal. I have no idea what he was doing after he left.”

His life on the lam lasted until 2014, when he tried to travel to South America and was arrested after a check of his passport. His eventual sentence: life in prison, with the possibility of parole.

Now, the graying 64-year-old sits in a cell at the Saginaw Correctional Facility hoping the Michigan Court of Appeals will consider his case and reconsider his life sentence based on what his lawyer says was a forced confession.

In his arguments to the appeals court, Xenakis claims his 1987 guilty plea may have been coerced by Judge Jessica Cooper, now Oakland County prosecutor.

Stuart Friedman insists his client deserves consideration, especially in light of reforms in laws involving penalties for possession of large amounts of drugs.

“Under today’s (sentencing) standards, that mandatory life offense isn’t mandatory and could be 81 months to 30 years,” he said. “I would like it revisited just so he doesn’t die in prison.”

Like his wife, authorities aren’t sure what he was doing during his time on the run.

What they do know is that Xenakis was quietly creating a new life for himself under an alias in Florida.

Years on the lam

There were reports he sneaked back to Michigan to see his children, hid out in Greece for a time, moved to Miami.

Acquaintances in Florida say he worked on cars, was part of a meditation circle, mentored youths, never smoked or drank.

Other details are murky, however.

Tom Cremonte, a former Oakland County Narcotics Enforcement Team officer who arrested Xenakis in November 1984, said he visited the fugitive after he was brought back to Oakland County “but he didn’t want to talk.”

“I asked him what he had been doing over the years and he just said ‘different things ... ’ and left it at that,” Cremonte said.

In the late 1980s, Xenakis ended up in the Miami area where he made new friends, joined a meditation circle and attended a Greek Orthodox Church. By all accounts, Xenakis lived a quiet, crime-free life as a car mechanic by the name of Jeff White.

“We always felt he had help from someone and probably a stash (of cash) hidden somewhere that kept him going,” Cremonte said.

In letters written to Oakland Circuit Court on his behalf, Florida friends spoke highly of “Jeff White” and how moral and trustworthy he was — someone you would loan your car or boat to without hesitation.

Ron Mallett, a deep-sea fishing guide, wrote how he met White in the late 1980s and became friends, sharing “a passion for cars and the ocean.”

“I keep thinking now about how tough it must be, having to keep private about your life and how it never came to mind he was anyone but Jeff White,” Mallett wrote.

Joe Noonan, who had known White 13 years, wrote how White was part of a Hollywood, Florida, meditation circle where he offered emotional support to others to help keep their lives on track.

Eventually, however, his past caught up with him.

Federal officers arrested him for passport fraud in November 2014 at Miami International Airport. Traveling as Jeffery White, Xenakis was trying to board a plane for South America. A computer check found White’s ID was that of a Michigan resident who had died in 1959.

Xenakis pleaded guilty in March 2015 and was sentenced to six months in a federal detention facility in Yazoo, Mississippi. He was extradited to Oakland County in November 2015 to face his old charges and was sentenced in April to life in prison with the possibility of parole for drug possession, extortion, felonious assault and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

People vs. Xenakis

The evidence against Xenakis in the 1980s was considerable, including possession of more drugs than needed to garner a sentence of life in prison.

Xenakis’ attorney says there’s another side to the story: That Xenakis risked his life and that of his family by cooperating with authorities with the hope he might be offered a lesser offense and more lenient sentence. Neither came.

In his arguments to the Michigan Court of Appeals, Xenakis blamed Cooper for coercing him to confess.

But court recordings and transcripts of the exchange between Cooper and Xenakis have been destroyed, a common procedure permitted by law after 15 years, and even Friedman admits memories have dimmed.

“Some people who knew him are retired or dead and others really can’t recall exactly what was said in court,” said Friedman, who earlier this month dropped a request to quiz Cooper and others and have the matter heard by a different judge.

Xenakis’ 1980s trial was delayed for more than two years with defense efforts to have evidence tossed out and charges dismissed or minimized. Cooper ultimately refused to adjourn a second trial and allegedly threatened to revoke Xenakis’ bond if he didn’t plead guilty to possession of over 650 grams of cocaine, according to Xenakis’ claims.

If he entered that plea, Cooper said she would give Xenakis 30 days “to get his affairs in order” before sentencing, according to one court filing.

Xenakis agreed but never showed up for the sentencing.

Cooper’s office declined to comment on the case, referring to arguments made by assistant prosecutors at earlier hearings.

Threat leads to search

The Xenakis saga began in 1984 when a 21-year-old babysitter for his children reported to Milford police that Xenakis and his wife had accused her of stealing $4,000 from them.

She denied the theft but said they forced her to sit in a chair, hit and choked her, fired a gun into the floor between her legs and Xenakis allegedly said: “Maybe I should just blow your toes off, one at a time.”

She eventually handed over two personal checks, but one bounced, prompting a threatening phone call that the woman had to make certain sufficient funds were in the account that week “or else.”

Frightened, the woman, who suspected Xenakis of dealing drugs, went to police. Over two years as babysitter and housesitter, she had seen Xenakis with bags of a white powdery substance, believed to be cocaine or heroin; suspected marijuana; and garbage bags full of $100 bills.

Cremonte, a former state trooper, was one of the officers who searched Xenakis’ home. Police found a locked four-door file cabinet with 982.6 grams of cocaine, a couple pounds of marijuana, some pharmaceuticals, more than $100,000 cash, a 9-millimeter handgun and a ledger outlining extensive drug deals.

Task force officers also found evidence that backed up the babysitter’s story: a check she wrote to Xenakis and, downstairs, a bullet hole in the carpet and a slug cut out of the flooring.

“Marijuana was his main thing but someone convinced him a higher profit margin was in cocaine, so he got involved in that as well,” Cremonte said.

Plea form submitted

Court filings from Xenakis’ attorneys indicate he “worked actively” with police agencies from the time he was charged until he absconded.

Cremonte confirmed officers recommended to then-county Prosecutor Richard Thompson that Xenakis be allowed to plea to a lesser offense or receive lifetime probation or parole consideration, but they were rebuffed.

The most recent court documents filed this month before Oakland Circuit Judge Cheryl Matthews say an appeal is pending and efforts to obtain court transcripts from 1987 and 1988 were unsuccessful.

In opposition to any hearing, the prosecutor’s office produced a one-page plea form agreement initialed and signed by Xenakis in 1987 that indicates the plea was voluntary. It includes his simple, hand-written explanation of the offense: “I had in my possession over 650 grams of cocaine.”

As far as the prosecutor’s office is concerned, any legal box Xenakis may now find himself in is one of his own creation.

“The reason we are dealing with 30-year-old records is because Defendant absconded before sentenced for decades ... , ” wrote Assistant Prosecutor Kathryn G. Barnes.


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Thomas Xenakis’ 33-year ordeal to stay out of prison

A timeline of events in the case of Thomas Xenakis of Highland Township, an admitted Oakland County drug dealer who, when faced with a life prison sentence in 1987, went on the run for 27 years.

He was caught in 2014 trying to take a trip out of the country. He waits in prison for a Michigan Court of Appeals decision on his case.

Nov. 9, 1984: Xenakis’ babysitter says Xenakis and his wife accused her of stealing $4,000 from their Highland Township home. The woman claimed she was threatened, roughed up, and Xenakis shot a bullet near her feet. She is finally released after her sister shows up with a checkbook, handing over two personal checks for the amount.

Nov 30, 1984: Victim is threatened again after one check bounces for insufficient funds. She is told to make sure there is enough money in the account later that week “or else.”

Victim instead goes to the Milford Police who pass her on to the Oakland County Narcotics Enforcement Team, who interview her, obtain a search warrant for Xenakis’ home where they find evidence of the crimes and arrest him.

Dec. 3 1984: Xenakis charged with possession of over 650 grams of cocaine, extortion, assault and weapons offenses. After a district court preliminary exam, he is released on $188,000 cash bond, posted by his father, a retired auto executive. The charges carry a life prison sentence.

1985-87: Trial is delayed by pre-trial hearings and legal defense motions, along with negotiations with Xenakis to inform on other drug dealers in exchange for a reduced offense and prison sentence. As trial date looms, then-prosecutor Richard Thompson ultimately refuses any deal for Xenakis.

Aug. 28, 1987: Oakland Circuit Judge Jessica Cooper denies an attorney’s request for yet another trial adjournment and gives Xenakis an ultimatum of having his bond revoked and be immediately jailed or take a guilty plea as charged and have 30 days to get his affairs in order before sentencing. Xenakis pleads guilty and is permitted to remain free on bond.

Sept. 29, 1987: Xenakis fails to appear for sentencing. Bench warrant written for his arrest. He leaves behind his wife and two young children.

1987-2014: Xenakis’ whereabouts are in question, sometimes rumored in Michigan and even Greece. Police now believe he spent most of the time living quietly in Florida under the alias of Jeff White.

Nov. 3, 2014: Arrested for passport fraud in Florida, where Xenakis tried to board a flight to South America under ID of Jeff White.

March 19, 2015: Pleads guilty to passport fraud and sentenced to six months in federal facility in Yazoo, Mississippi.

Sept. 21, 2015: Extradited to Oakland County, where he is arraigned on an outstanding bench warrant. Bond denied.

Dec. 2015: Xenakis files challenges to prior guilty pleas and requests evidentiary hearing in Oakland Circuit Court.

Jan. 20, 2016: Denied an evidentiary hearing over claims, including that he was coerced to plead guilty in 1987.

April 25, 2016: Sentenced by Oakland Circuit Judge Cheryl Matthews to parolable life. Placed in Saginaw Correctional Facility.

April 31, 2016: Appeal filed with Michigan Court of Appeals

Aug. 1, 2016: Defense attorney Stuart Friedman files motion in Oakland Circuit Court to settle record, request to have matters prosecuted by someone other than Cooper and to be heard by a different judge.

Aug. 9, 2016: Friedman drops his legal motions in Oakland Circuit and awaits word from the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Source: Interviews and court records