The morning began like any other as I readied myself for another day at the busy law firm in Norfolk Va., where I worked as an investigator. Part of the ritual included consuming a stout cocktail of the prescription painkiller OxyContin and muscle relaxers washed down with coffee on an empty stomach—a cycle which would be repeated throughout the day lest I slip into physical withdrawal.
As I pulled out of the long dirt driveway of the duplex I’d been renting, a Virginia Beach Police Department SWAT team closed in, blocking my exit with vans and an armored personnel carrier while flanking me with heavily geared officers. Flash-bang grenades exploded in front of my rental car and MP5 rifles with laser-dot scopes were leveled at my head.
By day’s end, I would be booked into jail on multiple counts of bank robbery.
That night was spent on the floor of a tiny cell in brutal drug withdrawal, hugging the paper-thin excuse for a mattress. My two cellmates occupied the only bunk beds by virtue of their seniority at the fine establishment. (Yes, there were three of us in a two-man cell due to overcrowding, a fairly common problem in jail throughout the U.S.) At lockdown, the door slid closed with a spine-jarring clang, and for the first time in my 44 years on this earth, I spent the night in jail —the first of many days to come.
The ensuing days were a haze of withdrawal, fear, loss and a series of disconcerting visions that haunt me to this day. Even writing this piece now, seven years later, brings back nightmares that raise my heart rate, bad dreams I’d rather leave in the darkest recesses of my mind. Life as I knew it had ceased to exist. How do you tell loved ones who depend on you that you are locked up for such an unfathomable crime? Where do you even begin the conversation?
THE ROAD TO JAIL
Working in Virginia was supposed to be temporary. Due to a downturn in the economy, I’d left Seattle in late 2009, leaving my wife and two young children behind with the expectation that I would return in a couple of months. My former employer, a Norfolk law firm, made me a decent offer if l returned to assist with a huge upcoming federal jury trial. But two months turned into six, as such situations often do, and though I frequently flew home to visit, my wife of 18 years had grown weary of my struggle with addiction to painkillers—a struggle that had ebbed and flowed over the years, but now reared its ugly head in full force.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. She’d walked a roller-coaster path with me over the preceding 10 years as I’d tried rehab and detoxes. During my last visit home, she could tell I had relapsed; she’d reached the end of her rope and filed for divorce. That had been a few months prior to my arrest and I knew I had no one to blame but myself.
Four agonizing days into my stay at the jail, I looked into the polished chunk of metal most penal institutions consider a mirror. I hadn’t eaten or shaved in all that time, too sick in withdrawal to even consider such menial tasks. The haunted face looking back at me was pale, defeated and unrecognizable, a mere shadow with dark rings under the eyes almost as blue as the eyes themselves.
This is the pit of Hades, I thought. My crash and burn had been horrific and complete. I was exhausted. It crossed my mind that death would be a welcome escape. I was bankrupt emotionally, physically and spiritually. Despair, shame and guilt overwhelmed me, and I gave in to it. I lay back down on the paper-thin excuse fora mattress, covered my head from the brain-numbing fluorescent lights, and asked God to let this train wreck of a life pass mercifully in my sleep.
It hadn’t always been this way. In fact, less than 10 years prior, I’d been a respected detective in a Seattle-area police department, having attained a coveted slot in the homicide unit. I’d paid my dues before that in the special assault unit, working nearly a thousand sex-crime cases. I had faith in God, a strong marriage, a successful career and two precious children. Though my father had died in a plane crash when I was 10, I’d grown up in a loving family, the product of an incredibly strong and amazing mother who’d brought us up in the faith.
I lay there in my misery, wondering how I could let a drug consume me to the point that I would fritter everything away. The cruel paradox was that drugs had never been an issue for me while growing up. To this day, I’ve never even experimented with illegal narcotics. It wasn’t for lack of availability or plenty of opportunities; I just had no interest in going down that road. Alcohol was a once-in-a-blue-moon type of thing.
It all started with a back injury in the late 1990’s, while geared up and jumping a fence to serve a warrant. The injury would lead to two surgeries over the next few years, and countless prescriptions from multiple doctors. Anyone who’s known pain or addiction can testify to the seductive lure of the opiate prescription drugs.
The slide into addiction was a slow burn over a period of years. Eventually I came to rely on the drug to kill the pain, to sleep, even to relax. After all, the types of crimes I was investigating were the kind that weighed on the mind 24 hours a day. It was not uncommon to lie awake for hours, spinning through the rolodex of potential scenarios to solve a case. Pills created a false sense of well-being that seeped into all areas of my life; I justified it by telling myself it was legally prescribed medicine. Soon I didn’t feel I was “myself” without popping a pill, and the lines between recreational and medicinal use blurred.
Inevitably, the time came when I tried to quit and couldn’t. In fact, when I stopped taking the pills, the pain returned with a vengeance, bringing with it all kinds of brutal flu-like symptoms. Physical withdrawal. But then another pill would take all of that away—and once I correlated the two, I was seriously hooked.
Prior to having a problem myself, I was always one of those guys that just didn’t “get” addiction. My response to the drug epidemic was, “Why don’t they just quit?” I considered it weakness of the mind, or a flaw in the person’s character, a lack of willpower, whatever. I had been through some demanding scenarios in my life, including weathering multiple family tragedies, working on fishing boats in Alaska, Army training and later law enforcement academy and arduous special-unit schools. Pushing myself to go the extra mile to succeed, to adapt and adjust in the face of adversity was always a welcome challenge. That attitude had served me well over the years. But now I was facing a different animal, one that had snuck in through the back door seeking to destroy all that mattered in my life.
No one knew about my struggle. As a cop, you’re expected to be above reproach in how you conduct yourself both on and off the job. Little flaws are bad enough, but heaven forbid that addiction to anything should enter the equation. Even my wife had no idea I’d fallen into a precarious spiral until I finally told her. That’s the innocuous nature of pill addiction: It has no odor. You don’t need needles or a pipe—but it’s just as deadly and maybe twice as insidious, if only because it’s technically legal and prescribed by a physician for a medical condition.
Over the next few years, I would get out of law enforcement, eventually using my investigative skills in the private sector. But my addiction followed me—and with it, mayhem. My once-strong faith faded into black; my marriage became strained and showed signs of failing. The old me –the sober me—would have recognized these problems and taken appropriate steps to right the ship, but the drug lulled me into thinking it “wasn’t that bad.” By the time I committed the bank robberies of which I stood accused, I’d become a shadow, an empty shell of the man I was and of who I’d hoped to be.
So I lay in that decrepit cell without even the will to pray and ask for help to do anything more than die.
TURNING IT OVER
But God wasn’t finished with me yet. The subject is dark, my predicament grim—but how else can one show what God brought them out of without sharing where they’ve been? And I had a secret weapon: I had a committed, praying mother and sisters on my side, as well as many others who warred for me in prayer.
Within a week of my arrest, a local chaplain came to see me. I was open about my situation, what I’d done and how I’d ended up in this place. I told him how I’d turned my back on God and let everyone who cared about me down. By this time, I was sick of the word sorry. Tired of hearing it. Tired of saying it. How could I remotely begin to face the mountain of justified consequences barreling down on me like a freight train? How do I possibly move forward after ill is? Where do I even start?
The chaplain was wise. He urged me to start with Psalm 51 —to read it, pray it as though it was me, meditate on it and mean it. David wrote that Psalm after his sin came to light involving Bathsheba, and his devastating attempt to cover it up. The pain and sincerity of the psalmist’s words inspired me. The chaplain prayed with me and invited me to apply to enter the Christian pod there in the Virginia Beach Jail.
I went back to my cell, got on my knees, and did exactly as bed advised. Tears flowed as I bared my heartache to God. The enormous weight began to lift off me and I told Him that if He could, or would, use the damaged shell I’d become, the rest of my life was His. The one caveat, I told Him, was that He’d have to walk me through the days to come. There was no way I could face the swathe of carnage I’d left in my wake alone.
I took the chaplain’s advice to put in a request to enter the Christian pod program, though I’d heard it was full with a waiting list and might be months before a slot would open up for me. After all, there were 1,600 other guys in the jail.
Incredibly, within the week my name was called to move into the Christian pod—a clear touch of providence! It would take a few hundred pages to adequately describe the miracles and awakening I experienced in that pod along with 12 other guys who wanted to reconnect with their Creator. Altogether, it was a nine-month program involving Scripture study, required assignment, and daily instruction from outside pastors, volunteers and businessmen who donate their time to jail ministry. I believe there is a special jewel in Heaven reserved for these folks who come into the jail to minister to imitates.
Over time, the promises and truths in the Scriptures came alive for me once again as I hungrily devoured pages of the Bible in a new light. “Finding” God required wholehearted and unwavering action on my part.
It doesn’t get more real than crying out to God from your knees on a cold cement prison floor. Unfortunately, that’s what it took for me to come to the end of myself.
In this place normally reserved for pain and despair, a curious thing began to happen: I began to find peace—a true peace I hadn’t known in years. I was physically locked up, but as they say, “free on the inside.” Before my arrest, I was in a prison of my own making and it was brutal. Today, I’m better off than so many who remain free but are in their own prison of addiction, fear and guilt, only because now I have a clear head and I know how this story ends.
My time in the Christian pod reset all my parameters. I saw miracles and lives changed in that place! I experienced incredible renewal. At times, the other guys and I would be locked down in our cells and unable to meet, but we’d sing and pray together even though we couldn’t see one another. The Spirit moved powerfully in those moments as we’d belt out “Amazing Grace” in surprisingly strong harmony. I’ll never forget a guard coming in one night on his rounds to tell us he could hear us singing deep into the jail. He told us the atmosphere was so different in our pod from the rest of the jail—“a certain peace,” he said. I know it was because the Spirit was in there with us.
Over the coming months, I would reap the catastrophic aftermath of what I’d sown in the years leading up to my arrest. My marriage ended in divorce. While some relationships would strengthen, others would inevitably fade out or suffer. Such is the predictable nature of separation. The time I’d be required to serve in prison was daunting, and my kids were at such a vulnerable age. Being apart from them was excruciating, and despite phone calls, it’s not remotely the same as being there. I’d grown up without a father, and now I was sentencing them to the same fate. I still carry the shame and guilt of not being present for all those who counted on me. Despite my newfound relationship with the Lord and a head clear of pills, I owed a substantial debt to society—and it seemed there was nothing I could do to lessen its impact on those I loved.
I raised the issue with another chaplain the night I learned my ex-wife was getting remarried. I think there was always this sliver of hope that everything would turn out OK, but the losses were piling up. I didn’t know how to face it as reality set in. I knew I’d go home a changed man someday, but certain things would never be the same. My heart was broken for my kids, and I asked the chaplain what I could do to calm my racing thoughts.
He asked me a simple question in response. “What can you do about it?”
“Nothing,” I told him. “I’m 3,000 miles away and facing a long stretch in prison. Absolutely nothing.” I kept repeating that as I tried in vain to staunch the gathering tears.
“Then this is when God’s grace must fill in,” the wise chaplain told me. “’This is when you have to learn that for all the things you cannot change, you must pray for God’s grace to fill that void—and that includes being there as a father, provider and protector of your children.”
I knew the chaplain was right, of course. I wondered how many men he’d had to tell that to before me inside these walls. That advice became a mantra for me over the ensuing weeks and months as I met the specter of the Virginia criminal justice system head-on.
In the end, I fully admitted to what I’d done and pled guilty to four counts of bank robbery in three jurisdictions. Each count in Virginia carries five years to life, and I’d need to be sentenced separately in each jurisdiction. It was time to take responsibility for what I’d done and pay my debt to society.
Altogether, I would be sentenced to serve just over 16 years in prison, which amounts to about 14 years when good time is factored in. Virginia does not have parole for those sentenced after 1995. I have a little over seven years yet to serve, though I’ll never give up hope of an earlier exit. In any case, I’m still freer than I was in those years of addiction.
Miracles continue to occur. In 2014, I was able to transfer out to my home state of Washington on interstate compact to complete my sentence. Many in Virginia said it couldn’t be done. The move out West has allowed me to see family and friends more regularly, as well as finish my degree. I have been blessed to spend some quality time with my kids as well.
Today, I cherish and savor every second with my children and loved ones. It’s a feeling I will hold onto for the rest of my life.
Originally published in the May 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.