James Fogle in court in 2011 while waiting to be sentenced for what would… (Ken Lambert / Seattle Times )
James Fogle, a career criminal and writer who blew every chance he had to go straight, including the brief period after his manuscript about a band of outlaw junkies, "Drugstore Cowboy," was made into a well-regarded 1989 movie, died in prison Thursday in Monroe, Wash. He was 75.
His death was confirmed by the Snohomish County medical examiner's office, which said Fogle had malignant mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer often associated with asbestos exposure. He died at the Monroe Correctional Complex, where he was serving a 16-year term for robbery.
"Drugstore Cowboy" told the story of two couples who joined forces to support their habits by robbing pharmacies. They were a quirky foursome with superstitions and their own ethical system whose exploits were laced with humor, pathos and sheer bad luck.
Made into a film by director Gus Van Sant, it starred Matt Dillon as the leader of the pack, who Fogle loosely modeled on himself and a longtime cellmate. It earned enthusiastic reviews, including one by Sheila Benson in the Los Angeles Times that called it "an electrifying movie without one misstep or one conventional moment." The screenplay, co-written by Van Sant and freelance writer Daniel Yost, won honors from the Los Angeles, New York and national societies of film critics.
Novelist William Burroughs had a small part in the movie and praised the book, which was published in paperback in 1990, for its "hallucinatory reality." It was Fogle's only published novel out of 11 he wrote in prison.
"His characters were so perfectly real," Van Sant said Friday of Fogle's fiction. "He was a pretty good writer who could channel his own experiences through these novels."
Fogle's life of crime began when he stole a car at 12. He spent his youth in a series of juvenile lockups and reformatories, an experience he later described as "like going to school to learn to be a thief," Yost said in an interview.
Born Sept. 29, 1936, in the tiny rural Wisconsin town of Elcho, Fogle was a difficult child who, he once told the Chicago Tribune, "couldn't relax … couldn't stand still." His father, a welder, beat him, and Fogle stole cars to escape.
In the mid-1950s he was serving time for auto theft at McNeil Island in Washington when he learned from fellow prisoners how to use drugs — and how to break into pharmacies to procure them.
He became a "drugstore cowboy" in 1963 when he burglarized a pharmacy in suburban Los Angeles. His haul was "humongous," he recalled, and "I spent the rest of my life not looking back."
He was involved in drugstore heists up and down the West Coast for the next four decades, rarely spending more than a year out of prison. He favored opiates such as morphine, but also used cocaine and heroin.
"It's a sensation probably between alcohol and sex," Fogle told the Seattle Times in 1992 of the hold that drugs had on him. "Most people don't know how they're gonna feel one minute to the next," he said, quoting a line spoken by the Dillon character in the movie. "The dope fiend has a pretty good idea. He just has to look at the labels on the little bottles.... It's almost like having a future."
During the 1960s, he decided he could write better than the authors whose works he had been reading behind bars. By the early 1970s he had produced a novel, "Satan's Sandbox." He sent it to Thomas E. Gaddis, who wrote the bestselling 1955 prison biography "Birdman of Alcatraz."
Gaddis sent the manuscript to Yost, then a freelance writer for the Portland Oregonian, and suggested he help Fogle rewrite it, which Yost did. Fogle sent him "Drugstore Cowboy" a few years later.
"He only had a sixth-grade education. He had a lot of problems with grammar and some plot holes," Yost recalled. "But I thought his novel was amazing … because of the uniqueness of the world he wrote about, an alternate world where there are just a different set of rules."
Fogle was married a number of times — "He was charming, women liked him," Yost said — but information about survivors was not available.
Like the characters in his novel, Fogle often found himself in situations that would have been laughable if they hadn't ended so badly.
One time he broke into a drugstore by cutting a hole in the roof and lowering himself with a rope. Police found him asleep in the store with $10,000 worth of loot in paper bags.
In 2010, after his longest stretch — three years — out of prison, a BB-gun-toting Fogle and an accomplice held up a pharmacy in Redmond, Wash. A silent alarm quickly drew police officers, who caught him with a pink bandanna over his face and rubber gloves on his hands, hauling two trash cans full of pharmaceuticals out of the store. He was convicted in 2011 and sent to the Monroe prison.
During one of his prison stints, Fogle learned to be a machinist and worked as a steam pipe fitter. According to Yost, his doctors believed that work exposed him to asbestos and caused him to develop the lung tumor.
"I had everything going for me," Fogle said some years ago about the possibilities for a new life after "Drugstore Cowboy" hit movie screens. "But it wasn't really different.... I always went back to what I knew."