Captured by Leah Rhyne
We’ve shared a lot of stories on this blog. We’ve talked about the street life. Drugs. Robberies and brutality. We’ve considered violence as an addiction exactly like any other. Every addict eventually hits rock bottom; the best they can hope for is to not hurt anyone on their way down.
Before coming to Turning Leaf, graduating from our program and becoming one of our most beloved staff members and team mentors, Blue hit rock bottom. A life of unchecked anger and aggression led to a single moment, a single act, that can never be undone. Let us be clear up front this week: this is not a story for the faint of heart. This is a story that involves the death of a child, a tragedy unlike any we’ve discussed before. This is not an easy story.
But this is Blue’s story.
Blue is the youngest of four children. His mother was a working, single mother, who tried her hardest to provide for her children. She worked a lot but always did her best to instill in them right from wrong.
Blue’s father was a huge part of his life. He was raised to believe the man was head of the household, and his father certainly provided for his family. To Blue, his father was nothing short of a superhero. “At the time,” he says, “He could do no wrong.”
However, Blue’s father was living a difficult life. He was a large man – over six and a half feet tall – who was very vocal and willing to stand up for his beliefs. From his involvement in the Black Panther party and rallies against social injustice to his dealings on the street, selling weed, his was a face and name well known by Charleston police. “He’d always let you know what he was thinking,” says Blue.
When Blue was eight years old, his father, he says, “was hanging on the block, selling weed. Some cops came along, doing their thing.” His father caused trouble, talking back to the police. There were four cops and two men: Blue’s father and one other. “Words were exchanged. He was mouthy. It got physical.”
More police came. They hit Blue’s father in the head more than a few times, then got him in handcuffs and put him in the squad car. His injuries were extreme, however, and he died on the way from the county jail to the hospital.
Of course, eight-year-old Blue didn’t understand any of that; he only knew his father, his provider, his superhero, was gone.
In Blue’s mind, it was time for him to step up and become man of the house. “I wanted to provide for my mom and sister,” he says. His brothers were already grown and gone. “Education became the back burner. I wanted to make sure we had what we wanted and what we needed.”
By nine, he says, “I began to dabble in the streets. I was holding packages [containing drugs] for the older guys.” He noticed the older guys dropped their packages any time the cops came around, and he came to a realization: “Instead of earning a couple of dollars for holding their stuff, why not just take the packages and start selling?” A nine-year-old drug dealer was born.
As he got older and began to grasp the implications of his father’s death at the hands of police, he grew angrier and bolder. “I thought, hey, if they can do what they did to my father, I can do whatever I want to.” But the reality was that he didn’t actually know what he was getting himself into. “I was just out there,” he says, “trying to do things to mask the pain, to get some understanding on life, but still uphold this role that I thought I was supposed to be: the man of the house.”
He stopped going to school in the 6th grade, learning fast to dodge truancy officers. His street life escalated as he found his footing and his friends; they’d periodically jump students from the Citadel and the College of Charleston to steal their bikes and backpacks. He shoplifted, getting busted after stealing a backpack full of stuff from JC Penney and beating up the security guard. They sent him to juvie for that, and for 45 days he fought his way through there, running wild, wreaking havoc. Back home, he tried to behave but his life was already on a violent trajectory; he went to school for a couple of weeks, knowing his entire family was watching him, but as soon as they relaxed, he was straight back on the streets. A second stint at juvie – six months this time – earned him a reputation as a tough guy, and things escalated from there.
By 15, Blue was stealing cars, robbing people, and selling drugs full time. His mother gave him an ultimatum. “I want you here,” she said. “But you’re making choices that say you don’t want to be here.” His options: stay and go back to school or leave.
Blue left and didn’t look back.
He lived with various women for the next few years, paying their bills to prove his worth as “man of the house.” He may have kept doing that forever, but then he met a different kind of girl, the girl who would eventually become his wife and would stand by his side through everything that was to come.
He saw her at a bus stop with a girlfriend one day. She was a student at the College of Charleston, and when she ignored his pursuits, he begged her friend to give him her phone number. Blue was persistent. He called and called, until she finally answered. They talked for five minutes. “She told me,” he says, “’Here’s my life. I’m going to go to college, graduate, and become something. The life you’re living doesn’t work for what I want, so you can stop calling me.’”
Blue laughs. “Man, I knew I had to get that girl,” he says. “All I knew was crime, though. I tried to make changes. I started working, but I didn’t have the tools to actually keep any jobs. I wanted someone like her in my life, though. I wanted to learn from her.” She told Blue he couldn’t be with her and in the streets, making him prove his money came from legitimate sources by showing her his pay stubs before she’d let him pay for anything on their dates.
Blue tried. He tried so hard. He spent years trying, working job after job, never managing to keep one for very long. He moved to New York when his girlfriend was pregnant with their first child, hoping a fresh start would set him on the right path. But when his sister went missing and he didn’t show up for work one day – he was trying to find her – he lost that job too. He was able to get into the street life in New York to pay the bills, but realized people up there were more physically violent than in Charleston. People came after his family up there, so he returned to Charleston and got a job as a landscaper.
Married, now, and with a baby, he kept on trying. He attended church with his wife, but he always had too many questions. “At church, they were always telling you what to do,” he says. “It was do do do do do. When I’d ask questions, they’d say, ‘that’s just the devil in you.’” It was too much pressure for a guy who was living on the edge; he turned back to marijuana, lacing it with cocaine, and the street life. A kid pulled a gun on him one day, and he thought it was the end. Still, he couldn’t get away from the streets.
Here’s where things get really hard to fathom. Here’s where Blue really started to falter. He had two lives: the straight life with his wife and children, in which he took job after job trying to live up to the standards as the man of the household. He also had a second life, another woman who accepted the street side of him. She didn’t ask where his money came from. There, he found acceptance, for a while.
One night, he was babysitting for her son, and the toddler wouldn’t stop crying. “He was crying and crying,” says Blue. “And before I realized it, I had hit him.” Closed fist, in the belly.
“As soon as I did it,” he says, “I was like ‘Aw, man. I’m sorry.’” He checked and checked the boy to see if he was okay. When his girlfriend got home, he told her the child fell off the bed. She checked her son again and again, but thought he was fine.
Later, though, it was clear: something was wrong. The little boy wasn’t himself. Together they took him to the hospital, where Blue repeated his story. The child fell off the bed. It wasn’t his fault.
There were unseen injuries, though: a lacerated liver and unchecked internal bleeding.
The little boy died.
It was Blue’s fault.
The next day, he confessed. “I realized I had ruined enough lives,” he says. It was his rock bottom, the moment he realized he had to become a better person. “I don’t want to do any more damage.”
Blue was tried for the murder of the child and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was at peace with the sentence almost immediately and pledged to use the time to become the person he wanted to be. “I’m a caring person,” he says. “I love kids. For me to have done that…it didn’t line up with who I am.”
From that moment on, Blue began to change for the better. His wife stayed by his side through everything. Blue served 17 years of his 20-year sentence, and his wife visited him three times a month the whole time. She’d bring their kids twice each month. He got to watch them grow, although the guilt over letting everyone down was overwhelming. “I felt like less than a man because I was constantly causing people pain,” he says. One day his daughter told him there was going to be a Daddy/Daughter Day at school. “You should bring your uncle,” he told her, to which she replied that it was not Uncle/Niece Day. He fussed at her for sassing, and then watched as she closed herself off to him. With the separation in their worlds, it took years to repair the damage caused by that one moment, and Blue took note of it. He learned from all of it.
Now, for a moment, imagine with me that you’re Blue. Imagine you’ve lost a father to police brutality. You’ve spent a whole life mistrusting white people, as it’s the white police who killed your father. You’ve just served 17 years in prison for the accidental murder of a little boy, and you’re trying hard to become the person you want to be.
Now imagine you’re faced with Turning Leaf, a program run by white people.
That had to be a difficult moment, but Blue, knowing he needed help, opened himself up to Amy and Joe and the rest of the Turning Leaf staff. There, he found the support to free himself from the patterns of violence and crime that dominated his life. When, following his graduation, Amy offered Blue a job, neither of them knew what it would be. But he took it anyway, and now he never wants to leave. “My job is personal interaction with the guys,” he says. “I give them support. I’m available after hours if they need to talk or want to go out. We have lunch together. We have discussions. With me they can just be themselves, and I hear them out. I can run a class or the print shop if needed. I send letters to men coming out of prison, and I recruit new students. I order supplies.” In short, he keeps the center running, spending his days helping others while he also helps heal himself.
He’s taking the time, too, to build bridges with his family. His wife and children call him “Dr. Phil” sometimes. “I’m putting in the work and watching my relationships heal and mend,” he says. “I’m making sound choices. This is the life I always wanted. In spite of the past, there’s always a possibility for a brighter future.”
A single moment. A single act. It can never be undone, but Blue has shown us – and, most importantly, himself – that with hard work and determination, from rock bottom you can move up, and you can create for yourself a life worthy of pride. A life full of value.
We value you, Blue, beyond belief. Your contributions to the lives of the men at Turning Leaf are beyond compare, and we are lucky to work with you, every single day.