The Last Sunset
The Day They Came for Dan Del Santo
This is the story of a family trauma. The loss of a father. The abandonment of his children. The rage of a mother and former wife. A personal testament to America's other "war."
Long before he died at the age of 50 on October 11, a federal fugitive in Oaxaca, Mexico, Dan Del Santo was an Austin music legend. Not that he sold the most records, or was the best known. There are no statues. Truth is, there are few memories. It's been nine years since he disappeared, and the Austin of 2001 is a far different place.
But Dan was a larger-than-life figure who could never be forgotten by anyone who met him, heard his music, or listened to his World Music Show on KUT-FM. He transformed the lives of many people around him, including mine, but his own life and music were often shrouded in the darkness and despair that ultimately ended in his own self-destruction.
When we first met in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1972, he was 21 and had a band called the Arm Bros. They were playing bluegrass/country, but unlike anything I had ever heard: frantic bluegrass songs about junkies in the street and country love songs in the midst of the early-Seventies acid rock.
Fast-forward to 1974. On a whim, Dan and I came to Texas for Willie Nelson's Fourth of July picnic. We decided to move here. It wasn't easy. He sold flowers and played for money on the Drag. Over time, he met some of Austin's best musicians and together they created a new sound, what Dan later called "World Beat." Soon, the Professors of Pleasure were born.
Theirs was a big sound -- swooping, bizarre rhythms, soaring solos, raging lyrics. Dan was all over the stage, whooping and growling and shouting into the microphone. Then, he would sing tender love songs that would make you cry. All told, he recorded eight albums (another still locked in a local studio), played every club in Austin, and was featured at music festivals from New Orleans to London. His World Music Show on KUT opened Austin's ears to sounds from around the globe.
Like so many other artists, Dan went outside the law to support himself and his family. He got caught. Big time. He chose to run, not fight the system he so despised. If there's a happy ending to this story, it's Anne Sherwood and their kids. After years of financial and emotional turmoil, Anne graduates from UT this December to teach high school. Rose, 22, will soon enter nursing school; Dominique, 19, is studying at ACC; and 16-year-old Lex is a gifted artist who right now spends most of his time playing guitar or drawing comics.
Dan's ashes were spread on the land where he lived outside Oaxaca. Only a remarkable legacy remains, while a family has learned to survive and grow, and pursue their own dreams.
-- Terry Lickona, producer, Austin City Limits
When I drove up my long dirt driveway in the early evening of August 19, 1992, I was greeted by men in blue jeans galloping toward my car, badges flapping in their hands. I got out of the car with my hands in plain view.
"We're looking for Dan Del Santo," said a bearded man who identified himself as a member of the DEA. Behind him, in and around my house, were at least two dozen men, trotting around the property with dogs on leashes. "We have a federal warrant for his arrest and for the search of this house and premises."
"My husband hasn't lived here for 18 months. I've filed for divorce."
"Well, I want you to relax," he said. "Just cooperate with us and everything will be fine."
I began to understand that this guy with the beard was the one they'd sent to be my buddy. He was trying to be so nice and polite. I wished I could make him spit teeth when he invited me to enter my besieged home.
The front-door jam was completely smashed, the dead bolt busted away from the door. The house was crawling with cops, who were busy tearing the place apart. I was asked to come upstairs to my bedroom, where more agents were pawing through my things.
A young agent in a flannel shirt and jeans approached me. He handed me four $100 bills.
"We found these in the closet in one of the coat pockets," he said.
I thought how pissed off Dan would be if he knew he'd left that cash in his closet. I stuffed it quickly into my pocket. Buddy told me it was time to go downstairs. I was escorted to my sofa, while they brought in the Head Honcho.
"I'm the head of this investigation, out of the East Coast Office of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Let's you and I sit down and have a little chat."
I heard survival roaring in my ears. This guy with the goofy bangs and eyes that had a tiny shifting, as if he were speed reading inch-long lines of endless copy, had to like me.
"Can you tell us how to find Dan?"
Of course I could tell them how to find Dan. I was supposed to meet him in 20 minutes down at the grocery store. Dan had our three kids with him. It was his afternoon, and I was supposed to meet him at 6pm. At first, this felt like a dilemma, because I thought it was out of the question to finger Dan. On the other hand, if I didn't show up for our rendezvous, he would drive to the house with the kids, and then they would see what was happening here -- a realization that made my course of action very clear. Protecting my children was more important than anything else.
"Yes, I can tell you how to find Dan. I'm supposed to meet him in a few minutes. But before I tell you, you have to agree to one condition."
His eyes flicked and his face hardened.
"Yeah. If I tell you how to find Dan, you have to promise me that you won't arrest him in front of his children."
Oh, yeah, yeah, that was fine, perfectly fine, understandable, no problem.
"How old are your kids?"
"They're 13, 9, and 7. Old enough to know what an arrest is, too young to understand."
"Of course," he said, showing his teeth.
I called my neighbor and asked if she could keep the kids for the evening. When I hung up, Buddy walked me out to his car. The entourage, which included a marked sheriff's car and three unmarked vehicles, made its way down the driveway.
The ride to the store was a short one, three or four minutes. We arrived and spread out, covering the four points of the compass. I reminded Buddy that they were letting me get the kids out of the van before they took Dan. Oh, yeah, yeah, he said. No problem. We can do that.
A silver Dodge van with black trim pulled up at the red light. It was the fifth car in line.
"There he is," I said, feeling my hands cold.
Buddy spoke urgently into his radio, threw the car into gear, and we sped forward. As Dan turned into the parking lot, the sheriff blocked his path, while the other three vehicles covered the other three sides. Buddy pulled up to the scene, and I barely had a chance to swing my feet out of the car before the agents rushed to the driver's side of the van, pulled Dan out of the van, and slapped handcuffs on his wrists. All three kids were screaming in terror.
I loaded them into the back seat of Buddy's car, and kept talking to them as I got in the front. By the time Buddy got back into the car, they had stopped crying and were sitting there looking terrified. I directed Buddy to my neighbor's house, and once the kids were safely inside, and I walked back to Buddy's car, the rage rising in me with mercurial force. I got in the car and slammed the door. He grinned and complimented me on my skills as a mother.
"You motherfucking lying piece of shit. I told you what the deal was, and you and your slimy ass friends agreed to it. But you had no intention of keeping your end of the thing, did you? How dare you subject my children to that scene!"
"I'm sorry it had to be that way, ma'am. We have to protect ourselves."
"You stupid, paranoid, son of a sorry bitch. I get how we play this game: You say whatever you think I want to hear, and then you do whatever the fuck you want. Motherfucker. Lying bag of scum!"
Buddy, incredibly, did not respond.
Back at my house, the crowd had thinned; only 15 or so agents remained on the premises. The police dogs were gone. I sat on my front porch and smoked, trying to calm down. I tuned into the conversation going on between three guys, in fatigues, standing in the front yard.
"They gonna bring him back here?"
"Yeah, soon as they finish searching him and the car."
"Who's gonna book him?"
"Did anybody find anything?"
"Naw, not a damn thing. Ain't nothin' here. But I hear they got enough dirt on him to sell him up the river for quite a while."
That was the one that got me. I was trying to calm down, but the next thing I knew I was on my feet, curses flying, fury forcing my voice into fever pitch. The trio backed up like crawdaddies, looking at each other and back at me.
"You assholes have invaded my home looking for a man who hasn't lived here in over a year, and you don't give a shit about me or my kids or what you've done to our lives!"
Buddy steered me back into the house where I continued to rant and rave. Two or three agents tried to sooth me, telling me how well I was doing. Suddenly someone shouted, "There he is!" and they all ran toward the door. Surrounded by agents, hands cuffed behind his back, Dan walked into the house. He wore a look of arrogant defiance. They led him to the table in the dining room and told him to sit.
Head Honcho, eyes flicking, mouth smiling, asked me to come into the next room and sit down.
"Let me tell you that we know everything," he said. "We've been investigating your husband for quite some time."
He began naming names, describing events, motels, vehicles, connections.
"I want you to understand that you are in a very vulnerable position," he explained kindly. "I could take you down and book you for complicity. Your children would be in foster care, and you would be in jail. Is that what you want to see happen?"
"I don't know anything about any of this," I told him. "Dan moved out 18 months ago."
"Why did he move?" He leaned toward me. "Was it because he was selling drugs?"
"No. No, Dan moved out because he went crazy. He went from being a loving, affectionate father and husband to being a driven, miserable, irrational man. Our marriage went down in the fire."
I started chatting. The Head Honcho began looking frustrated, but I was convinced that if I could just keep talking, I could protect myself from everything else. Finally, he held up his hand, signaling me to stop.
"Mrs. Del Santo."
"Anne. Anne Sherwood."
"Anne, I want to tell you how much I respect what you're trying to do here. You are obviously a very good mother.
"But let me remind you that you are in a very precarious position," and he repeated the rap about how he could arrest me, confiscate my home and property, throw my children into foster care, the whole nine yards. He looked smug and satisfied.
Then a terrible thing happened. My mind stopped working. It just shut down. Instinctively I recognized this as a state of mild shock. My wits were failing me. I sat speechless. I knew the less I said in this condition, the better.
Fortunately, Dan's functions gave me a reprieve. In the next room, I heard him shout, "Can one of you take off these handcuffs? I need to go to the bathroom."
I saw an opportunity to escape Speedball Eyes. I went into the dining room looking for my cigarettes. Dan was standing, hands cuffed behind him.
"We can cuff your hands in front of you," an agent dressed in fatigues told him.
"That won't help me."
"I'm sorry. We can't remove the handcuffs."
"Well," smiled Dan, "what if you put a guard at the door and another one outside the bathroom window? Then can you take them off?"
"No, sir, we cannot remove the handcuffs."
"Okay," said Dan. "Then one of you can guard the door, one of you can guard the window, and one of you can wipe my ass."
They took the handcuffs off. Dan walked past me to the bathroom. He didn't look at me. When he came out of the bathroom, three agents escorted him toward the front door. As he walked by me, Dan said under his breath, "Keep your mouth shut." They put the handcuffs back on him and walked him out of the house. I heard cars starting in the driveway.
"Here's a copy of the search warrant, and a list of everything we have confiscated," said Speedball Eyes, handing me some papers. "I'm going to leave you my card. I want you to call me if you have any questions or problems."
I stood by the door and watched them all straggle out. The boxes were loaded into the trunk of one of the cars. Dan was on his way downtown to be booked into jail. Buddy was the last to leave the house.
"I want to apologize to you for the way things went here," he said to me. "I'm sorry your kids had to see that."
"Fuck you," I told him.
Dan disappeared two weeks later, on the weekend of his birthday. He was supposed to pick up the kids to celebrate with him, but he never showed, and we never heard from him again. My son used to ask me, "Will I ever see Dad again?" I never knew what to answer. I was afraid to say yes, and I was afraid to say no. I told him, "I honestly don't know."
Some day, they will each come to terms with who their father was, what he did, and how he died. I used to think, maybe they'll wish he had died. Maybe he'll write to them. Maybe they'll save their money and travel around trying to find him. Maybe they'll find him. Maybe he has a new wife and new children. Maybe he will die and none of us will know.
But when he died, it was front-page news. Everybody knows. Old friends, folks I haven't heard from in these nine years, send us letters of condolence. My daughter receives messages of sympathy from customers at the convenience store where she works. And although these are good things, kind things, it's very odd for us, because we lost Dan a long time ago; we grieved him and missed him and worked hard to heal the loss of him.
My children, now grown, ask me, "What am I supposed to feel?" and all I know to tell them is, "Whatever it is, it's okay." How else can I answer that question, when I don't know how to feel, either? Certainly I have experienced moments of tenderness for Dan, and I've thought of the manner of his passing, that he died of internal bleeding from taking painkillers, a fugitive, completely estranged from children who had stopped referring to him as Dad. I wonder about the pain he was trying to kill, the bleeding that no one could stop.
What really mattered about Dan was his music. No matter what any of us think about a man who abandons his children, his contribution to the Austin music scene and its culture is undeniable. He could play the hell out of every guitar from a National steel to a Telecaster, and he wrote great, quirky, brilliant music.
Many of Austin's most respected musicians -- players like John Mills, James Fenner, Tomas Ramirez, Chris Layton, Tony Campise, Michael Mordecai, John Treanor, Paul Ostermayer, Paul Glasse -- all played, recorded, or were otherwise inspired by Dan's music. Dan Del Santo's World Music Show, as it was originally titled when Larry Monroe sponsored Dan into KUT, and over which Dan labored, planned, and stewed every week, introduced Austin to countless world music artists, from Fela Kuti to Joe Higgs, Burundi chants to New York street rap.
Nothing has really changed for Dan's family, except a shift within the heart, like when you finally finish a long and arduous novel that had a very sad ending. The U.S. Marshals and the DEA can close his file; maybe someday I'll receive a cardboard box with all the things they took from me nine years ago.
His father and brother and children will continue to live their lives without him, but none of them will have to wonder anymore, never again have to reply to the question, "So, do you ever hear from Dan?" That was forever answered by my son the day I came home from teaching school and he said to me, "Mom, Dan Del Santo is dead."