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A Former Extortionist Helps His Students Write Prison Stories with Happy Endings

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The students in Bob Dellinger’s writing workshop never lack for personal experiences to draw upon. One of them, for instance, tried to shoot a U.S. President. Another was the son of a Mafia leader. A third helped engineer the Watergate break-in.

Dellinger’s own background has some extraordinary moments too. He originally wound up in California’s Terminal Island Federal Prison—where he has taught inmates like Sara Jane Moore, Bill Bonanno and G. Gordon Liddy—because he tried to extort $800,000 from four airlines.

Since his parole in 1973, Dellinger, now 47, has supported himself handsomely as a writer but still commutes weekly from Venice to conduct one of the few courses in the federal prison system taught by an ex-con.

So far the workshop has yielded multiple dividends. One is that recidivism among its students is remarkably low. “In five years and over 400 students,” Dellinger says, “I know of only four who have gone back to prison.”

There have been more tangible rewards, too. Bank robber Ed Bunker has sold his second novel, Animal Factory, which he wrote while taking the course. Dellinger also served as middleman in negotiations for film rights to Bunker’s first book, because Bunker was in solitary at the time. Bank robber John Carlin sold a screenplay based on his childhood in a whorehouse. Counterfeiter Pat Yim sold four story outlines to TV’s Hawaii Five-O. (Liddy’s epic poems and his story about a police raid on the home of Timothy Leary, Moore’s political tracts and Bonanno’s memoirs have not been published.) Dellinger himself has found a market writing for TV cops-and-robbers series.

In 1971 Dellinger—the Indiana-born son of a circus trainman—held a $50,000-a-year job as a vice-president at Petersen Publications after four years at McCann Erickson, where he handled the Lockheed account. Then things went sour. His marriage of six years broke up and he was fired. “I wouldn’t admit I was drowning. My whole value system was shot to hell.”

He reacted by phoning the airlines with bomb threats but “when I got to the payoff site I realized I didn’t want the money.” He barely escaped after a shoot-out with FBI agents, only to be picked up the same day for a traffic violation.

Once at Terminal Island, he began writing for the prison newspaper and the Los Angeles Times op-ed page and finally persuaded officials to let him teach a writing course. “Prison is the greatest therapy there is,” Dellinger says. “You can’t run your middle-class games on other prisoners.”

After he had written to cop-author Joseph Wambaugh and persuaded him to lecture, Joan Didion and Michael Crichton, among others, followed. In a typical class, Dellinger asks his students to write 300-word stories about love, hate or fear without ever using those words—both as a literary test and to force them to examine their feelings.

Citing his own life as an example—he has invested in surburban real estate and has a steady woman friend—Del-linger wants “to get across the point that ‘once a con always a con’ isn’t true.” That is why he is writing his autobiography. Its title, Second Wind, refers both to his years as a distance runner at Indiana University and what he hopes is a permanently straight new life.