Jimmy Marks, the leader of a family of Roma (aka Gypsies), became known for heaping curses on Spokane leaders following a 1986 raid on his Spokane home. The home of his father Grover Marks was also raided. Police found stolen jewelry and over a million dollars in cash. The family was convicted of felony charges and fined $550. Later, they filed a $40 million lawsuit. After a poorly executed search warrant settled the case in the family’s favor, the city appealed. While the city awaited a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Markses accepted an out-of-court settlement of $1.43 million, much of which went to pay the assortment of attorneys they had retained over 11 years. Lighting a cigar with a faux $1 million bill, Jimmy celebrated. For his advances in civil rights, he became known as the Roma counterpart of Rodney King (1965-2012), though he preferred to compare himself to Rosa Parks (1913-2005), who refused to sit in the back of the bus. Later a news crew filmed Marks as he opened his dead father’s hearse and, with dramatic swoops of his arms, invited Grover’s spirit to enter City Hall and hex those who had done him and his family wrong.
Centuries of Shunning
Marks’s people call themselves Rom or Roma, Romany in the plural. The name Gypsy came about from the mistaken belief that they hailed from Egypt. Just as some Jews dub non-Jews goy or goyim, so the Romany call outsiders gadji for women and gadjo for men. In Europe they were so despised that Hitler built the earliest prison camps to hold them. At least a half-million Roma died in the Nazi Holocaust. A reputation as cheats and thieves has haunted them for centuries. Jimmy Marks's behavior in Spokane, and the legal record that grew up around his family, perpetuated that reputation. In the documentary film American Gypsy, Marks rejects the conventional wisdom that they are "thieving kleptos." When this author reached Marks's relatives by phone for interviews, they were unwilling to speak. If their adverse experiences with governments and media made them bitter, Jimmy’s flamboyant conduct also fragmented their close-knit community, for Jimmy had usurped his father’s senior role. Four-fifths of the Roma in Spokane relocated due to all the notoriety. Jimmy’s mother, Marie "Lippie" Marks, left him a nickel.
Opposing theories about Roma origins include both Persia (renamed Iran in 1935) and service as armed guards deployed to secure India from Islamic incursions. European Roma that hailed from the Vlax tribe like the Markses, after the diaspora from India 1,000 years ago, were enslaved in Romania. Victims of persistent indignities, they were banned from stopping for food, shopping, even from drawing water. Such bans transformed them into nomadic tramps. Due to the force of bans and the shunning they suffered, the people turned to "subsistence stealing," a phrase originated by Ian Hancock (b. 1942), a Rom himself and a University of Texas linguistics professor emeritus who represented the largest international union of Roma at the United Nations. As a measure of their low esteem, they ranked at the bottom of a list of 58 ethnic groups, including the fictitious Wisians, in a 1992 opinion poll.
Migration to Washington
Marks's humble origins help explain his boisterous pride between June 18, 1986, when the raid took place, and June 28, 2007, when he died. One grandfather used to tell fortunes in a covered wagon. Jimmy was born in a camp near Boise, Idaho, an aunt of his serving as midwife. Some 20 extended Roma family members lived in little travel trailers and tents warmed by stoves. They gathered greens from streams and dried wild trout on barbed wire. He cherished those trouble-free days and said, "We ate out of one dish as a family" (Youngs, 427). They avoided towns for fear of spooking people who believed the legends that suggest Roma abducted babies to sell into slavery and stole chickens to stock their cookpots. As Marks aged and his legal woes mounted, he grew more and more indignant as he learned about such myths and allegations.
In the early 1950s, when he was 10 or 12, his family moved to Salt Lake City. There, he said, "the Mormons were always trying to change and convert us" (Youngs, 428). The family wandered as farm laborers, picking cucumbers and oranges in California, sugar beets in Utah, potatoes in Idaho. Managers and owners of those farms allowed the Roma to pitch their tents and park their trailers. Having no formal education beyond second grade, Jimmy needed others to read magazines or newspapers aloud to him. He did learn survival skills in the camps: how to tell fortunes, how to preserve food, how to brew coffee by dropping grounds in boiling water. He declared his people are born with a gift of telling fortunes which gadjis never gain. His people are so closely identified with this gift that in the 1986 graphic memoir Maus, they are shape-shifted by Art Spiegelman’s pen to become fortune-telling moth-women who dress in babushkas.
During Jimmy’s years as a youth, the people spoke exclusively in Romani. They gathered for weddings or for Slava, a religious festival in the spring. That festival could draw hundreds or thousands. Jimmy’s favorite gatherings entailed simply roasting potatoes in campfires. When his family moved to Tacoma, he was in his early teens. In 1962, nearby Seattle hosted the Century 21 World’s Fair. There he learned his family had arranged a marriage between him and a Roma girl he had never met. Her name was Jane. They wed in Renton. Roma customs prohibited bride and groom from sleeping together until three days after their nuptials. The newlyweds lived with his parents in Tacoma and fashioned a bedroom from their sun porch. The next year, Jimmy and Jane followed his extended family to Spokane, where first son Tommy soon was born. Grand parties took place every weekend, Jimmy said, featuring potluck food, beer, wine, and whisky. Those parties sometimes led to fighting with police or residents of Spokane. If one of them needed blood, the only acceptable transfusions were to come from other Roma people.
In Tacoma the family had met future Washington Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011), a New Deal Democrat. When Rosellini was defeated in his bid for a third term, 20-year-old Jimmy went to work on the 1965 gubernatorial campaign for Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925), a Republican. Evans flattered Jimmy by telling him he should become "the first Gypsy senator." Though Jimmy never ran for office, perhaps because he was unlettered, he appointed himself and thereafter introduced himself as "the Gypsy Senator." In the 1960s and 1970s, he did in fact become a sort of spokesman for the several thousand of his people who voted in the United States. Today, "Estimates of the total population of ethnic Gypsies in the United States range from fewer than 100,000 to one million" (Heimlich).
Jimmy often wore a necktie displaying Tabasco hot sauce. He had been told about a train wreck, he claimed, where bottles of the seasoning lay. He bought the lot at a penny a bottle and resold them for 15 cents apiece to restaurants and bars. The profit gave him seed money to start a used-car business in Spokane. It was a process akin to flipping houses, he said: buy a car, sell a car, clean a car, trade a car. His assortment of jewelry, hats, and colorful neckties marked him as a sharp of a showman adept at harassing journalists and city officials.
In 1971, singer Cher had a chart-topping single titled "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves." In that song she adopted the persona of a Roma girl who was part of a traveling show. One of her customers impregnates her. The implication in the lyrics of that song is that the Roma women prostituted themselves. Jimmy, as a proud representative of his people, was keen to redeem their checkered reputation by partaking in the International Exposition that Spokane soon would host.
A Week at Expo ‘74
The Spokane World’s Fair featured a Folklife Festival, and the Roma seemed a perfect fit. That portion of the Expo was directed by Robert A. Glatzer (1932-2010), who arrived from New York City in 1973. Glatzer had made film documentaries about artisans, laborers, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Roma fascinated him, and he saw great promise in their participation at Expo ‘74. Marks, in a letter that was clearly ghost-written, offered his family and his clan as "one of the most intact cultural entities in the United States." Continuing the pitch, Marks insisted, "The art of palm reading and fortune-telling, while often maligned and satirized, is of great stature in many parts of the world." He concluded the letter, "We feel that we can contribute positively to the theme of Expo and aid in further understanding" (Youngs, 430).
That eloquent letter reads in retrospect as much like a job application as it is an offer of cultural exchange. Perhaps unaware that international expositions are nonprofits, Marks and his family planned a party funded by the public that would earn them extra money. To say that Glatzer’s inclusion of the Roma blew up in his face would not be overstating the case.
Provided a budget, Marks contacted out-of-state musicians, storytellers, fortunetellers, and chefs. A weeklong demonstration aimed to show how lambs were skinned, how bread was baked, and how Roma weddings were to be performed. His people also bought a keg of beer and hid it in a corner of the concession. Things swiftly turned sour after that. When a couple in their mid-teens who were meant only to demonstrate a traditional Roma wedding eloped, their parents freaked out. After that the Roma got in trouble with Expo management for charging for the fortunetelling. Such services were meant to be covered in the price of admission the patrons paid. For fortunetelling to be genuine, Jimmy complained, you need to "cross the palm with silver" (Youngs, 430).
Quashing his letter’s claims for a selfless cultural exchange, Jimmy defended the silver. He insisted that his people’s sole relationship with gadjis entailed money. "We only deal with you through money. That is our contact with you, and that is authentic. If you don’t want that, you tell me now" (Youngs, 430). A compromise with Folklife Festival management was reached. The Roma agreed to charge no more than a nickel for fortunetelling, and management in turn agreed to subsidize those costs and refund cash the patrons gave the Roma earlier. Some customers, still upset, went to the law. Glatzer got tipped off in advance about a raid by the Spokane Police, and he in turn tipped off the Roma. Within 15 minutes, they had vacated their concession.
A separate blow fell when managers found out about the beer. "They went crazy," Marks said. He felt justified by pointing out that his people were neither selling the beer nor giving it away, only drinking it themselves. His father, Grover Marks (1928-1997), was just as infuriated by the flap. He growled, "They got beer all over the goddam place! Why couldn’t we have beer?" (Youngs, 430). There were other reports of too little food to serve the paying patrons, and food too spicy to consume.
In several ways a double standard was applied to the Roma delegation at the fair. David H. Rodgers (1923-2017), Spokane's mayor at the time, said, "Reduced to its essentials, we gave a great big party and the rest of the world came and paid the bill" (Kershner). Moreover, the Russian exhibitors had managed to get away with charging money for their display. Marks and his crowd viewed themselves as envoys meant to demonstrate how Roma people revel. Calvin Trillin (b. 1935), writing for The New Yorker, called the Folklife Festival "either the best thing at the fair, or a way of making fun of everything else, depending on your mood" (Kershner).
The Marks family, friends, and entertainers left the exposition early. They abandoned their beer and spicy food. That early exodus made national news. Jimmy had seen the proverbial writing on the wall. He characterized the departure by trotting out the old saying, "You can’t fire me because I quit" (Youngs, 430). What he could not have foreseen was the sting operation the Spokane Police Department set up a decade later, and the snitch who offered to sell his family stolen goods.
Stung by Prejudice and Fear
According to media reports, the police cut a wide swath upon raiding the homes of Grover and Jimmy Marks, their wives, their kids, and their grandkids. On June 18, 1986, police "took the Marks family’s heirlooms, ripped gold-plated false fingernails from women’s hands, removed earrings from a 5-year-old girl and even searched a baby’s diapers" (Egan). Police found $1.6 million stored in canisters and quilts, as well as $160,000 worth of jewelry. The men claimed they were holding the valuables and cash for Rom families that did not trust banks. Grover, specifically, declared that he was a “private banker” for the Gypsy Church of the Northwest. The symbolism of being covered by quilts of cash would reward some exploring.
The police had reason to believe the Marks family was fencing stolen goods. A criminal fence is one that knowingly buys stolen property to resell to others. The fence encourages theft and reduces the chance of apprehending the thief by limiting the time the thief has property in his possession. The fence also enjoys a reasonable alibi by claiming that he did not know the property was stolen. In the Marks case, police used burglar Michael White as an informer who was connected through local residential burglaries. He wore a wire and made visits to the Marks family homes to sell them stolen silverware, jewelry, and electronic and photographic equipment. Sales were made and videotaped. At least 35 victims of crimes identified items stolen from them, according to records by the Spokane Police Department.
The four spouses were charged with trafficking in stolen goods. In the words of assistant city attorney Rocco Treppiedi, who was the lead prosecutor in the case, "What you had here was the proverbial den of thieves. They haven’t been persecuted. They were just caught red-handed" (Egan). In the words of one public defender, "a bad search" exonerated the Markses. In specific, the search took place before the search warrant was signed. The warrant also failed to mention money, thereby invalidating the seizure of the $1.6 million in cash.
Lawsuits, countersuits, appeals, and dismissals carried the case forward 11 years. U.S. District Judge Robert McNichols died while hearing the case. The Marks family ran through 23 attorneys, whose fees consumed more than a third of the $1.43 million settlement. It was one of the largest settlements in any police misconduct case at that time. As part of the settlement, the City of Spokane admitted to no wrongdoing. The city ended up paying more than $1 million in 1997 to settle the civil suit, and many tens of thousands more defending itself.
Fifteen years later, overtopping the Marks family settlement, the Spokane City Council paid $1.67 million in 2012 to settle the excessive-force case in the death of intellectually disabled janitor Otto Zehm. (Assistant city attorney Rocco Treppiedi, involved also in the Zehm case, got sacked that same year.) In the 1994 Rodney King civil lawsuit that topped both, a jury awarded King $3.8 million in damages for the beating he took at the hands of the Los Angeles police.
As for Jimmy, a part of him seemed to glory in the spotlight shone upon his ordeal. He dressed for the cameras, prepared sound bites, and went on record that the force of Roma curses would ruin Treppiedi and City Council members. Jimmy was profiled by ABC, CBS, and NBC; he was written up in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He appeared before Jerry Springer and was covered credulously by Connie Chung. He cut a wide swath. He spared none of his detractors in his wrath. Rom professor Ian Hancock commented from Texas that the long history of police harassing the Roma had never resulted in a backlash as righteous as Jimmy’s.
Jimmy died on June 28, 2007, after a dental procedure. He suffered cardiac arrest from an anesthesia that reacted badly with medications he was taking. His widow filed a lawsuit against the dentist. State investigators concluded the dentist was not negligent, though he had been in legal trouble before.
The remaining members of the Marks family continued to make news. Two years after Jimmy died, several members were arrested at a gravesite fracas that injured a detective. The Roma were having a wake there, as their tradition allowed or required. Another visitor to the graveyard filed a complaint. In the aftermath, Jimmy’s estranged son Tommy was convicted of second-degree assault and later arrested by a SWAT team. He faced two counts as a felon in possession of a firearm. In 2012, a separate Tommy Marks, his cousin, filed a handwritten lawsuit against the entire State of Washington for alleged harassment. In 2013, Federal Judge Robert H. Whaley granted the state's motion to dismiss and closed the file.