“At first, it was just a few prisoners from the county jail, dropped off by a sheriff’s van at the delivery entrance to the stone outbuildings on our property. I’d like to tell you they were there to assist in producing meals for the county jail and state prison, but they weren’t, not in the sense you might think.

“My name is Bertram Ballesteros. I own the Petroleo Company. Please call me Mr. Ballesteros. I inherited the business from my parents. ‘Petroleo’; ever heard of it? I bet you have. No doubt you have some in your medicine cabinet right now. The stuff’s a miracle. It cures rashes, soothes burns, chapped lips and hands, most anything. You might even have some in your work area. It can loosen rusted nuts and bolts and it’s a well-known lubricant for everything. Petroleo is a miracle. My parents deserve most of the credit for it, but I helped, too.

“Back in 1990, a series of unconnected events gave Petroleo its start. Bear with me; at first, nothing seems to go together. For years, Iowa had its annual bumper crops of corn and soybeans. It also had an overabundance of a not-so-desirable product: inmates in its state prisons and local jails. The cause of this sudden influx of prisoners was the novel psychosis producing the street drug ‘Mareo.’ The name is Spanish for ‘brainsickness.’

“Mareo, highly addictive, produced an initial feeling of euphoria in its users. Inhibitions were lowered, but once the drug’s effects began to wane, the psychosis began. If the dosage was increased in an attempt to recapture the euphoric high, people became irritable, then violent, many to the point of inflicting grave bodily injury or death on their victims. Not all persons suffered the same effects from Mareo, but most exhibited delusions and committed acts of extreme violence.

“News outlets reported the drug came in from Mexico. Where it came from doesn’t matter; Mareo was here and things got crazy. The jails were full from the most violent felons to harmless weekend hellraisers, all due to Mareo. By early 1992, Iowa had maxed out its prison population capacity.

“My parents were immigrants from Mexico. We lived in a small limestone house outside Jamesville, a rural community in northeast Iowa near the State Penitentiary. They started their businesses that became the Petroleo Company in two stone outbuildings on the property.

“Let me give you the layout. The stone outbuildings faced south away from our house. There was a crushed gravel driveway that led from the state highway. It wound around the house, to the stone buildings behind. It was far enough away from the road that no sounds coming from the outbuildings could be heard from the roadway. Other than deliveries of prisoners and the pickup of prepared meals, there were no outdoor activities around the outbuildings.

“Out of the smaller building, my mother ran a catering service, Marti’s Meals. She was a cook, a good one to be sure, but she was no ‘chef’ despite the outfit she wore. Always seeking respect, she insisted people call her ‘Chef Marti.’

“My dad, Jaime, had his operation, with the large vats and distilling equipment, in the bigger outbuilding located behind the kitchen. It seems there was always something bubbling and roiling in those vats. If you got close enough, you could see chucks of pork flesh and bones undulating in the unfinished stew. The animal body parts boiled down into a slick, oily broth, which he then put through the distiller to get his lamp oil. The stench emanating from this area was an unforgettable combination of the smells like those from rendering plants and paper mills.

“The idea, using pork fat and bones to try to make a substance like whale oil for use in old time oil lamps, was foolish. Dad convinced himself he could distill a light lamp oil and offer it for sale to people that owned oil lamps. In Jamesville, there were a lot of shops that sold antiques which included oil lamps. If it had been a hundred years sooner, he would have had a good idea, but in the early 1990’s, it wasn’t. Dad almost bankrupted the family pursuing this idea.

“Neither business brought in much money. Our family was on the cusp of financial ruin. In need of cheap labor, the folks put me to work, but it wasn’t enough to turn things around. Mom took steps to make sure the family didn’t lose everything.

“I never understood it at the time, but somehow Mom convinced the local sheriff to let her start preparing meals for the county jail. Neither of them wanted to talk about how she did it. The spike of inmates, caused by Mareo use, was gobbling up the food budget of the sheriff’s office. After the deal Mom struck, she received a certain dollar amount for each meal. Business and income for our family picked up. By all accounts, the sheriff was able to save quite a bit of money on prisoner meals. Rumor has it he pocketed a lot of it.

“After that, two or three times a week, a deputy would bring a few prisoners to the kitchen in the smaller stone outbuilding. I assumed they were there to help prepare meals for those in lockup. I am told, although I never had the opportunity to eat one, Mom made some of the finest meals a prisoner could hope to get.

“While the quality of the meals at the jail improved, the number of prisoners dropped. It was strange, but the jail never seemed to keep the same prisoners very long. Nobody complained because the overcrowding ended even though the magistrate kept sending prisoners to lockup.

“To help maintain order at the jail, the sheriff sent only the prisoners who had severe Mareo use problems to us. This meant that he had to send armed guards to our property to keep everyone in line. It was a little frightening, as a child, to see armed men in uniform leading prisoners into the outbuildings. I always found it odd that other than the day the new batch of prisoners arrived, there were no guards. It wasn’t until later I found out why and now I can tell you.

“The prisoners started their work in ‘the kitchen’; Mom called it ‘kitchen duty.’ The selected prisoners, in chains, were then led into the ‘prep room.’ This was the place where my Dad cut and cleaned his animal parts before turning them into oil. Off this room was a space with large stainless steel tables. On a wheeled cart was an industrial band saw which attached to the large tables through a series of clamps. The saw was moved from one table to another as needed. The floor had a series of drains and hoses for easy clean up.

“In the ‘prep room,’ Mom gave each prisoner a small glass of wine as a ‘welcome.’ Not long after, they fell into unconsciousness. These unfortunate jailbirds were then processed into meat for the kitchen operation. They became the meals for the remaining prisoners in the county jail. After a short passage of time, another sheriff’s van would arrive to bring the prepared meals back to the jail.

“What I didn’t know until I started working there was the buildings were connected by a tunnel. You could move back and forth between them without being seen. The leavings of Mom’s food processing activities were moved over to the oil processing facility through the tunnel. Once we got the prisoners, Dad switched from hogs to people to make his lamp oil. That saved a lot of money.

“Mom’s allotment of prisoners always seemed to change. Nobody stayed around very long. I thought they must have gone back to the jail while I was at school. Other than to notice it, I didn’t give it much thought; that is, until I learned the truth.”

Ballestreros paused for a moment to look out the window. Smiling to himself, he then got to his favorite part of the story.

“The addition of the prisoners to our family business operations was the reason Petroleo was created. Stumbling on to Petroleo was part of the luck I talked about before. I played a big part in it.

“When I started working, I was a gofer. My job was getting the supplies Mom and Dad needed for their work. One day, Dad was shorthanded in the vat room. He had already loaded the meat parts but needed someone to put a measure of powder into the vats when the stew reached 180 degrees. After showing me how to do it, he left me on my own. When the gauge got to that temperature, I grabbed a box of powder, the wrong one as it turns out, measured the grainy substance, and added exactly the amount as instructed. The powder I used was not the intended ingredient.

“Instead of an oily liquid, I created a gelatinous substance that was useless in oil lamps but was a smooth, slightly greasy substance that could be put into tubes or small plastic containers and used like petroleum jelly or lubricant.

“At first, Dad was so angry I thought I would end up in one of the vats, but he saved the results of my mistake. He conducted some experiments using the jelly on ‘clean prisoners’ provided by the sheriff. At first, no one thought about the fact the substance was made out of prisoners who were Mareo addicts. When Dad and the sheriff discovered the ‘clean prisoners’ who used this jelly acted like they were on Mareo, they knew the jelly was contaminated. Marketing this jelly to the non-using, general public would create more addicts, thus more prisoners. The more Petroleo produced, the more money came in.

“My father introduced the lubricant salve as ‘Petroleo: An All-Purpose Product.” At first, he had a difficult time getting the local store owners to put it on the shelves. Sales moved at a snail’s pace, at first, but Dad knew they would pick up. Soon, Petroleo was everywhere in our town. You could find the little red and yellow tubes next to every cash register from restaurants to bars to hardware stores. Shopkeepers couldn’t keep it on the shelves.

“Tourists came from all over to buy ‘Petroleo’ in the nick-knack shops on the main drag of town. The town economy boomed. As Petroleo became more in vogue, the incidence of crime also increased. Not petty crime, but violent outbreaks among people you wouldn’t think would commit crimes. After a while, people were even fighting at church, at school board meetings, and youth sporting events.

“Business really took off when Dad found a way to sell Petroleo to a large pharmaceutical company. Big Pharma knew what was in Petroleo and didn’t care. It became an ingredient in most prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. This expansion of the business meant Petroleo became available nationwide. Soon, violent crime spiked everywhere, especially in large metropolitan areas.

“Iowa saw major crimes skyrocket. Soon, the overcrowding problem at the local jails and state prisons became what our governor described as ‘acute.’ The increase in violent crime was still blamed on Mareo, not Petroleo. Conservative politicians accused Mexican cartels and immigrants of smuggling Mareo into the country. Liberals screamed about a xenophobic ‘blame game.’ No one treated this situation like the public health crisis it was.

“The people became alarmed. The streets were unsafe, but there was no room in the prisons to lock up the offenders. The pressure on politicians increased, forcing them to do so something to ease the overcrowding. Building more prisons was too costly and slow. A quicker way was needed to reduce the prison population. Into this situation stepped the Petroleo Company.

“It received government tax credits to increase production and build more facilities for its prison food business. The company agreed to ‘hire’ prisoners to make ‘special dinners’ for prisons and jails. With the increased availability of raw materials, the production of Petroleo expanded. What was being missed or ignored was that the more widely Petroleo was distributed, the more deviant behavior occurred. The result was more people were sent to prison, then to Petroleo Company productions facilities; all the while, the prison population leveled out enough to appear that dangerous addicts were being locked up. The whole scheme was a huge revolving door scam, but it worked to reduce the political pressure.

“It should have been clear that Petroleo was addictive, but no one thought to look to it as a source of the problem. Of course, the pharmaceutical companies remained silent about the use of Petroleo in medications. All the increase in violent behavior was blamed on Mareo use and the Mexican drug cartels. There was too much money at stake to face the reality of the crisis.

“In the middle of this profitable arrangement, an investigator arrived in town from the state inspector general’s office. Mark Wainright was a curious fellow. He asked a lot of questions, particularly about prisoners in the local jail who were discharged from custody with no record of release and could no longer be found. He reviewed jail registers, checked when a person went into jail, their offense, term and release date. The release dates and population counts seemed to be off. He noticed a pattern of prisoners disappearing after working at Petroleo facilities. He needed one more piece of the puzzle to blow the whole scheme sky high.

“Wainright wanted to see the all sales records of the Petroleo Company and the complete list of prisoners who had worked in Mom’s kitchen processing food for prisons. While visiting the processing facility, and before his report was sent back to the IG’s Office, the inspector suffered a mishap. He fell into one of the large distilling vats that produced Petroleo. All his investigative work was lost. After this tragic accident, and a few calls were made to certain well-placed people in authority, no more inspectors came.”

As he was about to finish his story, Ballesteros looked out the window again, then turned to address the gathering. “That’s how I became a wealthy man. The more people use Petroleo, the more they have to. Petroleo can make you rich, too.”

Across the room, Dr. Thomas Samuels, in charge of Group Session A, seated with six residents, was shaking his head. He stood up and said, “Please return to your seat and calm down, Bert.” He made sure to emphasize “Bert.”

“Sir, you’re interrupting my board meeting.” Dr. Samuels motioned to the orderly to escort Bert to his seat.

Looking at his patient, he said, “Petroleo went out of business years ago. It didn’t cause people to go insane; that was the street drug, Mareo. You were a user and murdered your family; that’s why you’re here, you’re not rich. Now, sit back down; this group session is not over yet.”

When the session finished and the participants were led out, Dr. Samuels said to the orderly, “You’re new here, aren’t you?” The orderly nodded in agreement.

The doctor continued, “Please understand something; Bert thinks he’s the head of Petroleo, except he’s been here since he was ruled incompetent to stand trial. Petroleo is gone; you can’t find that stuff anywhere. Other than group therapy and time in the yard, Bert’s locked in his room. It was Mareo that made him delusional and homicidal, not Petroleo. His crime—murdering, cooking, and eating his family in that chamber of horrors he called a home—now that’s real.”

The orderly said, “So nothing else in his story’s true?”

“Look, Petroleo was a harmless petroleum jelly which never sold well. It was not made out of prisoners who used Mareo. That drug got blamed for everything. The Ballesteros family did have a small side business in Jamesville, but they were workers at Petroleo, not the owners. To think the government, Big Pharma, and the prison system were in on some conspiracy to make food out of people or looked the other way while prisoners were murdered and turned into drug-tainted jelly to ease prison overcrowding is ridiculous. To Bert, everybody’s a cannibal. Only a demented mind like his could dream that up.”

As he was turning to walk to his office, Dr. Samuels said, “The man’s a dangerous lunatic. I’ve been trying to get through to him for a long time; so far, no luck.”

Back in his office, Dr. Samuels looked over the institution’s population reports for the current month. The numbers dropped faster than he thought. Because this could affect state funding, he needed to increase the count of residents under care. He made a note to call the state prison to see how many inmates were in the next batch scheduled to be sent over to the hospital. He’d do that tomorrow.

Unlocking his desk drawer, he took out a small plastic bag and a bottle; it was time for his Mareo. He’d need an extra dose today; Bert had gotten on his last nerve. Days like this and patients like Bert made him hungry. Taking two pills from the bag and downing them with a swig of whiskey, he picked up the phone and called the kitchen.

“This is Dr. Samuels. Group Session A is due for ‘kitchen duty’ next week. Swap them out with Group Session B and move the A Group up to today. Make sure Bertram Ballesteros is processed this afternoon; when he’s done, please send up a ‘special dinner’ to my office. Thanks.”