John Knock is the ultimate example of the past coming back to haunt you, and then some.
The now-73-year-old’s story is one of a person who can withstand a barrage of legal ordeals and somehow come out the other side with a sense of humor and humanity still intact. If it were fiction, it might be inspiring. But instead, it is another tragic example of the American judicial system and the war on drugs.
That said, John Knock will be the first to say that he likely wouldn’t have made it through a life sentence for a nonviolent cannabis offense if it weren’t for his family.
A Product Of The Counterculture Becomes An International Fugitive
A self-described product of the 1960s, John Knock found himself in San Francisco’s Haight -Ashbury at the counterculture movement’s height. The minister’s son from Indiana enjoyed life in the Bay Area, recalling free concerts in the park featuring acts like Carlos Santana, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane. He’d attend peace rallies at Berkeley as well. Like many, he enjoyed his pot. In time, Knock would get attracted to the illegal pot trade.
His fondness for the plant and his involvement in the counterculture movement grew as he began to travel the world, including treks on the 1970s hippie trail. The trail treks allowed him to see swaths of Asia and Europe. A prolonged stay in India ended with a one-year stop in Mendocino County, where he built a cabin. During this time, he said he was pulled into the illicit cannabis trade.
The ’80s brought additional opportunities in the international illicit cannabis market when European operators and Knock worked together to import hashish into Canada. Around ’86 or ’87, Knock said he faced a choice: live on the road, living out the illicit lifestyle, or call it a career and continue building a family with his wife, Naomi, who had been with since the early ’70s. He chose the latter.
“She had put up with me for ten years, and it was my time to live a different life,” he explained.
John Knock said he officially retired and withdrew from the operation. He contends that, to his knowledge, the venture disbanded, with everyone involved ceasing work. The pivot to family life gained momentum when Naomi was accepted into a doctorate program in Hawaii. The family uprooted so she could complete her education. While there, Knock received a phone call, warning him he was a target of the DEA for crimes committed between 1984 and 1993.
The stay-at-home father, fisherman, and husband with no other criminal offenses was perplexed. On the advice of attorneys and facing imminent arrest, he fled the country.
From 1993 to 1996, Knock and others in the operation evaded officials. The following three years saw several higher-ups caught and prosecuted. Authorities allege that Knock eventually was deemed the co-conspirator as others obtained plea agreements during their prosecution.
In 1996, a shipment offloader and money collector in the group, Julie Roberts, turned herself in, getting Knock on a payphone call in Paris, France in 1996 as part of her plea deal. He was immediately arrested upon taking the call. The following three years saw Knock fighting extradition to the U.S. Knock noted that Roberts would not spend a day in jail for her involvement, claiming that she walked away with millions.
Knock recalls the French prison system being less violent than what he’d eventually experience in America, but France’s austerity stuck with him. “You were locked in a 12″ by 12″ room for 23 hours a day with two to three other people, bathroom in the corner,” he recalled. During his time in the French system, he reported seeing only two fights between prisoners.
John Knock was eventually extradited to the U.S. under an agreement that he would not face more than 20 years in jail. Instead, the Northern District of Florida’s conspiracy charges to import, distribute, and launder money led to Knock receiving two life sentences plus twenty years in 2000.
“As soon as I got onto American soil, they superseded my indictment,” said Knock.
He also claimed that the court used imaginary weights and sums to inflate the charges against him. “The whole trial mechanism just was so much theater controlled by the judge,” said Knock, whose frustration could be felt as he recalled the case.
Life In American Prison For John Knock
John Knock would spend life in two types of American prisons. While awaiting trial, he was in a holdover situation, which he said was a breeding ground for inmates trying to gain footholds on their cases. “A lot of the people in the holdovers are there to gain a foothold on somebody else’s case so that they can get a time cut from their sentence,” explained Knock. He said that while prisoners are looking to get advantages for themselves by providing information, police also told inmates to acquire knowledge or face longer sentences themselves.
Knock said there was minimal violence in holdover. That would not be the case when he reached his first penitentiary, FCI Edgefield, in South Carolina. Upon stepping off the bus, Knock was jumped. His jaw was dislocated and his orbital bone broke along with several teeth.
Upon reviewing the incident and its footage, an investigating officer asked Knock why he didn’t fight back. When he told the officer he didn’t believe fighting achieved anything, he was told, “You’re at USP now; you better learn something.” Knock said he’d eventually learn the jumping stemmed from an extortion attempt. However, the immediate jumping created a rumor that Knock was in for a pedophilia-related crime. It would take weeks before he cleared his name with a The New Yorker article mentioning his case.
Incidents like the attack were the norm in prison. He recalled seeing a young prisoner, just four months from release, die in front of him after being stabbed in the heart with an ice pick. “It was just the saddest thing,” he recalled.
In addition to violence, Knock was placed in max custody, where he’d have to report to an officer every two hours. He said the conditions were placed on him because he knew how to fly helicopters and was thus deemed an escape risk.
Matters only worsened when he was moved to USP Beaumont in Texas, which has been cited as one of the most violent and drug-addled prisons in the U.S. system. “There were stabbings at least every other day, maybe a beat down every other day, maybe twice a week,” detailed Knock.
While he held out hope that clemency would come during the Obama administration, the opportunity never materialized.
In 2008, he’d get transferred to USP Allenwood in Pennsylvania. Around that time, Knock’s older sister, Beth Curtis, took up the charge fighting for his release. She began researching the ordeal of nonviolent cannabis offenders like her brother. She unearthed scores of cases, prompting the launch of Life For Pot, an advocacy group for nonviolent cannabis offenders.
Knock credits his sister with keeping him and his bid for freedom alive. “If it weren’t for her, I’d still be in,” he stated.
Beth and other advocacy groups’ efforts finally led to John’s clemency in January 2021 as part of former President Trump’s final commutations. Today, Knock is getting back to life with a family he hasn’t been with since 1994.
Learning about modern tech is a hurdle. As is reacquainting himself with the family he’s been away from for nearly 30 years.
The family has helped him transition better than others in the system. “I am so lucky to have a family that surrounds me and cares about me,” said Knock.
While many former lifers want to enter the legal cannabis market, Knock is focused on his family and his wife’s 75-pound Labrador, Bella. “All that I want to think about is hugging my ex-wife, petting the dog, and saying ‘thank you’ to people the people who helped—that’s it.”
Still, Knock hinges his hopes on politicians like Vice President Kamala Harris, who has supported cannabis record expungement. While Knock is free and greatly appreciates his commuted sentence, he is not free from his sentence. He still lives with the burden of billions of dollars in fines and forfeiture.