50 Rounds to Freedom

The Story of Grant

By Richard Drebert

© Good Catch Publishing

My 90-year-old grandmother shifted gears in her daddy’s dairy truck. She was 13 again, a Cajun beauty with raven-black hair; early mornings she helped her father milk the cows.

She looked at me with a near-toothless smile, but greeted her little brother. “You gotta pick up hay today, Alvin!”

I nodded. “Okay …”

Dementia.

I set my glass of Jack Daniels on the nightstand beside her bed and stuffed the .45 automatic into my belt before adjusting her pillows.

45

I was a newborn baby when this frail woman took me in.

Across the room, Tom Brokaw’s voice blared on the evening news, and I turned it to a whisper. Now I could detect the sounds of boots and battering rams or the telephone if police negotiators called again.

I was 42 years old, 250 pounds, 6-foot-2, with fists the size of baseball mitts — and my grandmother’s full-time caregiver.

I had beaten and cuffed felons for a dozen years, but for the last few months I combed Grandmother’s sparse gray hair, changed her bedding and fixed her meals.

It was the least I could do for the woman who raised me after her daughter gave me up. I still thought of Grandmother as “Mom.”

I closed her door, wishing I was as unaware of my reality as she was of hers. Mom’s bedroom was positioned in the center of my house, the safest room in a firefight with the SWAT team — that waited for my next move.

My cell phone rang.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Grant. Leave the gun inside and come out …”

“Hey, Mac, why are you even talking to me?” My words felt thick and unwieldy. “I uz a cop, ’member?”

I sucked hard on my joint and held the fumes in for a few seconds. “I’ll be out about midnight. I don’t wanna kill any of you guys, so stay under cover when I start shootin’.”

“Don’t do that, Grant. It won’t end well …”

“How about you send my wife round with our car to pick up the old lady first? I don’t want her in the middle of a firefight.”

Mac paused a few seconds. “Negative. We can’t risk it.”

The Siskiyou County Sherriff’s Department reckoned that I would take Doris out — she had reported me to a deputy in the first place.

I hung up the phone and sat down at a computer, bleary-eyed. I typed a spiteful letter to my wife. I printed out a list of Mom’s needs and how I thought she should be cared for after I was dead.

A sniper’s red dot touched my shoulder. Another laser flicked across the screen, and I decided to move to another room.

 

***

 

I was the “abortion that got away,” my family used to say. My birth mother was barely 18 and Dad was 16 when they married. The justice of the peace pronounced them man and wife so that no one could call me a bastard when I was born a couple months later.

Mother got a job with the telephone company and gave me to my grandmother. Grandmother had lost her own late-in-life baby, Sammy, to SIDs weeks before I was born, so I came along at just the right time. We needed each other.

Back in Louisiana, Pop (my grandfather) was raised a poor dark-skinned swamp dweller, and Mom (my grandmother) belonged to a well-off family that owned a dairy farm. They eloped and left the bayous when Mom was a teenager. Mom and Pop moved to Oakland, California — a melting pot where people were more open-minded to mixed-race marriages.  

Their firstborn son, George, lived at home most of the time when I was growing up. My uncle George was 20 years older than me, but he treated me like his little brother after Sammy died.

My real mother visited Mom, Pop and me after work and on her days off — more often than not unhappy, soused and belligerent. In one memorable episode during an argument, Mother grabbed my little Cajun mom by the throat and dragged her to the floor beside the couch. Screeching and scrabbling sounds bounced off the walls until Pop came and broke up the mother-daughter bout.

Wherever these two women lived and worked, tension electrified their conversations. Mom enforced her demands with sheer will and razor-sharp words. Mother “lost it” without warning, especially after a few beers. Shoving usually preceded her all-out physical assault.

 

***

 

At a rangy 6 feet tall, Mother wore her miniskirt like a dare. After years of wreaking havoc upon men, she finally married a high-rise window-washer, my stepdad, who quickly learned to kowtow — or wince at his bruises as he squeegeed the next day.

 

“Son of a …!”

At the Sears auto service center, Mother pulled up to her favorite gas pump, and so did another woman in a Caddy at the same time. They faced off, bumper to bumper. Neither could reach the gasoline nozzle, and a horn-honking battle escalated to screaming epithets out their car windows.

A wide-eyed boy in the Caddy sat beside his furious mother, just like me. He looked to be about 12 years old, too.

Suddenly Mother flung open her door. Her high heels click-slapped to the Caddy’s open window, and Mother’s fist hammered the woman full on the side of her face. Without missing a beat, she grabbed the poor woman’s hair and rammed her head into the steering wheel, over and over, honking the horn with every thump.

“The nerve!” Mother seethed as she slid into the seat beside me again. We raced off to another gas station.

The other kid was crying, but it wasn’t a big deal to me. I was learning that physical aggression could settle any argument. Mother instructed my conscience to feel no guilt when I, too, beat someone down.

 

*** 

Mom cooked and cleaned at our parish rectory, Saint Louis Bertrand Catholic Church of Oakland. And she commanded implicit respect from family, priest and parishioner, like a petite fine-edged butcher knife.

I attended Catholic school at Bertrand until middle school, and my best friends all wore priests’ collars. Our head parson, Father Ralph, was a jolly self-proclaimed draft dodger, who usually started drinking somewhere around noon. One day he had to confess — to Mom.

My toes could barely reach the gas pedal when he agreed to teach me to drive without her permission. On my first memorable lesson, I shifted into reverse as he “safely” walked behind his precious ’66 Mustang to open the passenger-side door. I might have rolled him over, had it not been for a pole on the basketball court.

Mom did give her permission to Father Ralph’s younger second-in-command, Father Edgar, to take me to peace marches and war protests. When I was about 10, we joined the infamous 19-month Occupation of Alcatraz. We boated to the island to show solidarity with the activists, like the rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival and actors Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando, who protested federal policies dealing with Native Americans.

One day I asked Mom a pivotal question that set the trajectory of my future. It seemed logical that God should be part of my life, outside our Catholic compound.

“Mom, how come we don’t have any Bibles in our house?”

The little woman set me straight. “Grant, the priests study the Bible for us. It’s not your job.”

Thereafter, I left religion and God to the priests.

My days of bellying up to the long butcher-block table in Mom’s rectory kitchen for snacks ended — but not my confusing childhood.

  

The only kids in my parish were gang members or wannabes from the Oakland ghetto, and they swaggered in and out of Bertrand’s iron gate during the weekdays. I never officially joined any gangs, but it was fun to tag along on their escapades.

“Take it out! Do it!”

The sound of a brick shattering a storefront window felt exhilarating, and hearing the whiiiiish as I stabbed the sidewall of a BMW tire took the edge off my own inner rage.

I ran with all kinds of mixed-race kids, but my birth certificate said I was Caucasian.

“How come you act like a white kid?” friends in my mostly black neighborhood asked me. I didn’t know, and I didn’t fit in.

Who am I?

I resented not having a mother and father I could call my own — and I blamed my hot-tempered mother for chasing my real dad away. One day my family enrolled me in a school away from our ghetto neighborhood to save me from the gang influence. I transferred to Edendale Middle School in San Lorenzo where Mother lived with my stepdad.

 

During the ’60s and ’70s, sex, drugs and rock and roll helped me find the identity I longed for. I learned to play the steel guitar — emulating twisted rock gods like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. My idols could overdose on drugs, spend time in jail or act outrageous in public and people loved them! They possessed personas that fans adored and never suffered consequences. I wanted to be them.

I despised my teachers, and in high school I wouldn’t have attended classes at all, if it wasn’t that I played football. Perpetually stoned and surly, I made my school administrators as miserable as I could.

When I turned 18, my 1970 Malibu burned rubber in the school parking lot for the last time. I felt pretty cool until reality slapped me in the face at home. Pop laid down the law.

“Grant, you have two days to get a job — if you want to live here.”

Pop worked for Crocker Bank as a vault supervisor and never missed a day. I headed for the employment office and landed a job in a warehouse.

 

“So you want to get away from all this?”

In our tattered booth at Nation’s Giant Hamburgers, Sergeant Cook, my portly Army recruiter, waved a fleshy arm at Oakland.

I was at my wit’s end. After just a year as a dropout, no one wanted me around, including my family. I needed a change. Fortunately only misdemeanors showed up on my record, but if I waited much longer …

“Sign me up, Sergeant. What’s the easiest job in the Army?”

Sergeant Cook pursed his lips over a drooping cancer stick and smiled. “Military Police, Grant. You’ll love it …”

In a matter of weeks I stood in a line of naked recruits, and the doc gave me a grudging pass, though my arches seemed a bit flat. The Army flew me to Alabama for Basic Training, and I adjusted to authority that couldn’t be bullied.

No pot here. No booze. And no attitude.

Just follow orders.

I was surprised at how much I loved military structure. I didn’t have to figure out what to do each day — it was all laid out for me. But six weeks into boot camp, at 2 a.m., a sergeant rousted me out of my rack.

“Downstairs, Grant.”

In a dingy Army office, I saluted sleepily at a chaplain and my commander. The chaplain handed me an envelope with tickets home.

“Your mother is gravely ill. You need to fly to Oakland right away …”

Mother had been at the phone company when she complained of a horrible headache. Suddenly blood gushed from her nose and ears before she collapsed. Diagnosed as a cerebral hemorrhage, my birth mother stayed on life support for weeks after I flew back to boot camp.

I didn’t care. The family could deal with deciding when to pull the plug. I had work to do. I was behind in my training and had to catch up.  

 

Most of the men in the military police angled for a job in law enforcement after they received their honorable discharge from the Army. Not me. I decided not to make the Army my career, but I stayed in the Army Reserves in Oakland.

I had served my country for three years before renewing my acquaintance with the Bertrand rectory housekeeper’s daughter, Jean.

No one supported our marriage. Not Mom, not Pop — and her parents hated the idea. On our way to Reno to elope, I stared at Jean’s beautiful, relaxed face as she slept in the seat beside me — thinking.

If I had any decency or really cared for the woman, I’d turn this car around.

Instead I woke my girlfriend in Reno where we said our vows, feeling in my gut that our marriage was a stupid mistake. But I wanted to feel normal. Something inside me yearned to discover love and purpose outside of my selfish, unfulfilled heart.

In less than a year, our families clashed one too many times, and I left Jean. We landed an annulment, and Mom and her priests were happy it didn’t say “divorce” on the papers.

 

***

 

Uncle Ray, Pop’s brother, was my role model when I was in my mid-20s. He was a career machinist at American National Can, and his life principles fit with my own. He had a family and was well-respected in the community — but no one got in the way of his booze and women on the side. He got me a position as a machinist’s helper — which petered out in two years when the economy went bust.

 

“How long are you goin’ to wait for National Can to call you, Grant?”

My carousing friend, Del, an Oakland police officer, sat at the bar with me and handed me a napkin with a name and phone number on it. “Go see Sergeant Rowen. Stop dreaming about being a machinist. You need to be a cop.”

“Maybe I will,” I said and made up my mind the next day. I called the sergeant and set up an interview. Sergeant Rowen was a straight-talking officer who read me like a book. And I didn’t pull any punches, either.

“Look, I’ve always been a jerk, Sergeant. I grew up here, and when I was young I was on the wrong side of the law most of the time.”

Rowen smiled. “Remember, we’re talking about Oakland, with one of the highest crime rates in the country. The department isn’t looking for Boy Scouts. We’re looking for men who can handle the streets.”

He paused, his dark eyes boring into me. “I think you’re one of those guys.”

Suddenly I was sold on the idea. I hauled away a stack of glossy brochures and mandatory paperwork, and on my drive home I realized that I might have to change my attitude: I hated Oakland cops.

 

I passed my academy training in Criminal Law, Firearms, Arrest and Control Techniques, Community Relations, Vehicle Operations, Traffic Enforcement and First Aid.

I found that the Department had two kinds of officers: natives, who were raised in the Oakland area and understood the streets; and non-natives, cowboys who wanted to experience the Wild West.

We natives didn’t drink with the cowboys after shifts much. Cowboys were using the Oakland Police Department to build resumes for a cushy job in Oregon or Idaho. With our record number of homicides, after about three years an officer could point to his experience in Oakland and become a homicide detective on some small police force.

As for me, I had finally achieved Rock Star Status. My badge gave me license to do whatever I wanted, to whomever I pleased on my turf. The Department gave me cart-blanche to exercise any and all methods of force to control a suspect. Before Taser-like weapons were commonly used, we applied batons, boots and fists to subdue someone. Our training manual instructed us in the proper “escalation” of force — but I often skipped to an old-fashioned beat-down technique if a suspect resisted. In my first two years, none of my commanders censured me for my methods of arrest, because it was considered Department protocol.

After my probationary period, I finally let the morose, angry Grant loose among my fellow officers, most of whom I had little respect for. I snubbed officer’s gatherings and scorned Department politics and favor swapping. My disgust for supervisors rivaled the contempt that I reserved for the grossest criminals on the street.

Several officers who lived outside “inner city” Oakland were hooked on various drugs, like cocaine, meth and marijuana. They didn’t dare venture into my ghetto streets for fear of other police officers seeing them with dealers. I lived in the ghetto area, and no one even questioned why I was there.

I milked my connections and carried drugs to the suburbs for my officer “friends.” The money was good, and I had no qualms about committing felonies while wearing my uniform. And with my police badge, dealers supplied me all the drugs I needed to feed my own addictions.

 

I sat in my living room with a beer in my hand when the video of Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police officers hit the evening news. King was an African-American, apprehended by Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase. He resisted arrest, and as per Department protocol, the officers escalated force as they saw fit.  

“Just stay down! Stop resisting, and they’ll stop!” I hollered at the TV.

He didn’t. The officers, assuming that he was high on PCP, “power stroked” his body with side-handle batons until he finally lay still on the pavement. None of the officers realized that the incident had been videotaped by a man on a nearby balcony. News stations all over the country aired portions of the video, stretching racial tensions to the breaking point.

The police officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. After their trials the next year, all officers were acquitted, triggering riots on the West Coast and in other cities that killed 53 people and injured more than 2,000.

Looting, assaults, arson, murder.

My hometown exploded, too. In April of 1992, I worked long shifts at the Oakland City Jail after we conducted “sweeps” to clear the streets of violent types before the anticipated verdict. The Oakland jail boiled with hatred, and few of us officers obtained necessary backup as we marched suspects into overcrowded cells.

It was the evening of the controversial verdict, now called Rodney King Night, that I escorted a cocky young inmate to a dorm-style holding cell. He was 18 and built like me — without the spare tire growing around his middle. When he cut loose with his first haymaker, no other officers were in the room. He telegraphed his first blow, and I gathered my rage to put him down.

Cheers in the dorm grew louder as inmates watched the Oakland “pig” getting butchered.

It was payback for Rodney.

My drubbing seemed like hours as I hung on to consciousness. With my last burst of strength, I used a Judo move to trip him, and he fell to the concrete. My knees jammed his sides, and I finally stunned him long enough to gain my feet — and my boots pounded his head like a soccer ball until he lay still.

But what was “acceptable” procedure by us Oakland cops before Rodney King’s beating had become police brutality overnight — even within the Department.

No one had informed me …

Cameras inside the dorm cell captured the whole grisly fight — and I couldn’t talk my way into just a reprimand.

“I did what you guys trained me to do!”

My sergeant talked to me like I was the perp.

I laughed sardonically. “Whatever happened to ‘watching a brother’s back’?”

“Things are different now, Grant. The police union rep will be in touch. Internal Affairs is investigating you for ‘excessive use of force.’ I need your badge and gun. You’re on suspension until further notice. Good luck. I wouldn’t want to be in your boots right now.”

Without my badge, I felt naked on the streets, and no one knew the depths of my depression. Panic attacks assailed me. I felt my personal code of “no limits, no conscience” weakening, and I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. After several months, my ordeal ground to a gut-wrenching conclusion.  

Brawling “by attorney” and defended by the powerful police officers’ union, the Oakland Police Department reinstated me with full benefits. My attorneys successfully threw the blame for the incident upon the OPD and its training practices. But my superiors never forgot that I had sullied the reputation of the vaunted OPD.

 

***

 

Doris worked as a correctional officer at the OPD and her son, Danny, needed a father. Every cop who knew us warned Doris that I wasn’t “normal” marriage material. She was several years younger than me, and we had a standing joke that if I didn’t marry her, I could at least adopt her.

Doris and I had two things in common: our addictions to drugs and alcoholic, dysfunctional relatives. We bought a big house together to make a home for Danny, and we seemed almost happy during the year after our wedding.

 

Officers that I worked with sometimes quipped about “going postal,” a phrase coined in the ’80s and ’90s after several stress-related killing sprees in workplaces. In the second year of my marriage, I began identifying with those killers, who murdered superiors because they felt psychologically shoved over the edge. Every night that I patrolled the streets, I teetered close to a breaking point.

And at home, Doris and I fought, pounding on each other verbally and sometimes physically. It wasn’t unusual to see OPD officers standing at our door at 3 a.m. answering a domestic violence call. Neighbors who reported the screams watched from behind their curtains as uniforms smoothed things out between two of their own.

“Hey, Grant, just let us talk to Doris to make sure that Danny and her are okay, and then we’ll go …”

Before I snapped and killed myself or everyone around me, I decided to quit the OPD — and defuse somehow. Doris had resigned some months before me and ran a successful daycare facility in our home. But every evening Doris’ alcoholic, combative relatives invaded. To me, they were as omnipresent and unwelcome as bedbugs.

At the brink of divorce, Doris and I decided to take a full day to hash out a plan to patch up our relationship. After hours of arguing, we agreed that we would sell off everything and move to a small town far away — without her relatives in tow. In fact, they would never darken our doorway again.

“I can walk away and never see you again, or you can agree to my terms, and we can save our marriage. You’re free to meet your family anywhere else but in our home. And Doris: You’re making this promise in blood.”

Capitalized by profits from selling our house and intoxicated over the prospect of leaving our problems in Oakland, we moved to a little ranching community in Northern California called Hilt.

Her relatives were furious.

 

***

 

Picturesque. Timber and pastures. Surreal solitude.

“Mom,” now frail and needy, had come to live in paradise with the three of us, and due to her dementia, the State paid me to care for her full time. Danny attended school only three miles from our split-level home, at a one-room “Little House on the Prairie” schoolhouse.

We had one neighbor, barely in waving distance, and Doris found a good job as a nurse in Yreka, 22 miles away. For the first time in my life, I could smoke my cigarettes on the deck in cool morning tranquility, watching red-winged blackbirds and blue jays patrol the yard for insects. I had stockpiled Jack Daniels — and pot, using a dealer close to the family — and I didn’t have to conserve much. At night, Doris and I smoked our marijuana together and had a few drinks — and the next day we did it all over again. Orderly, routine — it was a lot like my life as an Army MP.

My absurd bliss lasted for two months.

One cold morning I fed Mom and got Danny off to school, and Doris and I were enjoying a cup of coffee and cigarettes. Danny’s birthday was a couple of days away, and she had planned a party.

We sat in our bedroom talking over our day off together, and suddenly she said, “Grant.”

She wore a hint of a smile. “I really don’t care about our agreement. My family will be here for Danny’s birthday party.” She paused to enjoy my reaction. “And there is nothing you can do about it.”

My mind jumped from reason to rage as I watched Doris rise like a triumphant kitten and pad softly into the hallway. We had sold all that we acquired in Oakland to invest in our country dream home. My little Cajun Mom lay in her bed with the TV blaring, waiting for “Alvin” to feed her lunch.

I felt trapped. Betrayed.

“Someone” inside me suddenly turned paradise to hell. I reached into my nightstand, gripped my .45 pistol and followed Doris down the hall. No need to chamber a round. It was always ready to fire. Doris wheeled around at the end of the hall, spoiling for an expected fight. She had no time to register shock as I jammed the .45’s muzzle into her chest. She fell to the floor, and I straddled her. I placed the barrel of the gun to her forehead and cocked the hammer back.

“What do you have to say now?”

I didn’t “see” Doris anymore — only a perp who was trying to wreck my life. In 12 years with the OPD, I had never fired my weapon in a shootout, but this time I fully intended to kill the offender. I stood over Doris, and slowly, like Bertrand’s church bell, reality softly tolled.

I was a former cop assaulting another former cop with the intent to kill. Alive or dead, Doris would ruin me, and my mind reeled as I left her on the floor, shaking.

Gun Crime, Do Time.

In the kitchen I cursed and grabbed a Budweiser from the fridge and a bottle of Jack Daniels from the cupboard.

No one knows me in Siskiyou County. This time I have no OPD brothers to help me sweep my screw-up under the rug.

I downed a shot of whiskey, then another. I chased them with beer and felt the burn inside my empty belly. I was glad Danny was at school. Doris approached slowly, tears streaming.

“It’s going to be okay, Grant,” she stammered. She sat down at the end of our big glass dining room table. She eyed the .45 lying on the table top in front of me. “We can work this out, hon.”

She sounded like — a cop trying to talk down a bridge jumper. I tossed down another shot and looked her in the eye.

“You’re lying. We both know that it’s not going to be ‘okay’.”

My apologies couldn’t clear the air this time — and I wouldn’t go to prison as an ex-cop. And even if I survived incarceration, I could never live the rest of my life as an ex-convict. It was better that I blow my brains out …

I drank until the Jack bottle was empty and started on another at 3 p.m. It was time to get Danny from school.

“I … I gotta go, Grant.”

“I know.”

 

Ranchers always wondered why in tarnation a sheriff’s deputy needed to patrol the back roads of rural Hilt every three weeks. It seemed a waste of tax dollars. But I thank God that on the day I contemplated suicide, a deputy stopped to assist a frantic woman near Hilt’s little schoolhouse.

I had lost control of my future, but God had not.

 

***

 

Next to the .45 on the glass tabletop, my cell phone rang. “Grant. This is Siskiyou County Deputy Lance. I know you’re ex-OPD, and I’m talkin’ to you like a brother officer. Look out your window, and you can see me here with your wife. She’s real scared for you, Grant.”

I stared out the window.

“Why don’t you clear your weapon, and leave it on the table. Come out, and let’s talk before 500 units get here and gum up the works.”

Deputy Lance had parked his car near the entrance of my long drive about 150 yards away, but I knew that a half-dozen patrol cars stood by just out of sight, down the road.  

“I’m not going to do that, Depuddy.”

“Well, you know I can’t just leave. If you change your mind, give me a call on your wife’s cell. You know what’s going to happen next.”

The crisis had escalated to an official “standoff.” The officer on the scene judged me to be a danger to myself and the elderly woman inside the house.

I watched an armored vehicle roll up and disgorge SWAT personnel. Other officers were burning up phone lines to OPD to obtain intel on me.

Is Grant the kind of man who will die in a shootout rather than give up?

Siskiyou County Officers spoke to people who had known me since the academy, and Officer TJ, an old graveyard patrol partner of mine, summed up their feelings about me.

“Grant’s a great guy, but he once told me over coffee that if he were ever cornered, he would never give up his gun. He would go down in a blaze of bullets rather than surrender. Don’t try to rush the house! Someone will die.”

           

It was well past midnight, and I was drunk and high, but I knew where every bulletproof vest was located in my yard. Mom seemed to be living in the present at the moment, and I stumbled through a plan to coax her safely to the officers outside.

Mom stopped me dead.

“It’s freezing out there! I don’t go outside when it’s so darn cold. You know that.”

“But Doris is out there, Mom. She’s gonna take you to dinner.”

I stood by the open door, ready to help her down the long flight of stairs into the garage. She looked dubious, then stubborn.

“Nope.”

If I could carry her down the stairs, I might be able to push the button to lift the garage door and scurry back into the house — if I wasn’t so drunk.

Too late.

Mom made a beeline for her bedroom. I closed the door.

 

By 2 a.m., Mom was asleep, and it was time.

Blinding spotlights glared at my windows, and laser sights found every gap in the curtains. The sheriff hadn’t cut off power to the house, because of the elderly woman inside, and on the computer I left a rambling letter of explanation.

My cell phone lit up, and I let it ring. I racked a shell into the chamber of my 12-gauge and opened the door between the kitchen and garage. At the bottom of the stairs I sat down, nursing half a can of beer. The .45 in my belt pressed my kidney uncomfortably, and I shivered from the Mossberg’s cold steel across my lap.

What next?

I sat in the cold dark, while Father Edgar’s words handcuffed themselves to my inebriated brain.

“Suicide is the only sin that God will never forgive, Grant.”

But is what I am doing really suicide?

After a few rusty Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers, I said out loud, “God? I don’t know if you’re real. I’ve really screwed up my life, and it looks like I might be committing suicide-by-cop. Not too sure … and if I kill one of these country cops, I hope you forgive me …”

I had no idea how powerful my crude little heartfelt prayer was. I understand now that I tapped into God’s mercy, available for all of us.

I hit the “up” button to lift the garage door, and slowly, slowly it rose as lasers turned my carport into a discotheque. The mercury vapor light above the driveway outside illuminated my path, and I stopped below it, trying to orient myself for a few seconds. The garage door closed behind me, as slushy rain pelted my face. I squinted at a raspy voice coming from behind a bright spotlight.

“Drop your weapon!”

I ignored Mac completely. “Do it! Shoot! What are you guys waiting for?”

“Grant, it doesn’t have to end this way! Put it down.”

I choked out, “If you’re not going to do it, then …” and jammed the barrel of the 12-gauge under my chin.

That’s when the sky fell.

Flash grenades exploded all around me, and shotguns unloaded several beanbag rounds. The projectiles hit me, rendering one of my arms useless. Another grenade went off behind my head and shattered the mercury vapor light above me. Everything went black, and the blast shoved me forward. I trained the barrel of my shotgun at the spotlights and fired back, round after round, like a madman.

From three directions rifle and pistol muzzles flashed — live rounds.

A sniper in a tall tree fired the single operative bullet, and it struck my left hip and then pierced my right leg. I fell to the pavement and grabbed at the .45 in my belt, but suddenly I was Rodney King — times 10. Someone kicked my pistol away, as boots, knees and rifle butts descended on me.

Fifty rounds were officially accounted for after our firefight. Slivers and holes stippled the garage door — around my silhouette. Either all the military-trained SWAT marksmen (except one) had missed their target — or God had granted me a second chance at life.

In the weeks following, as I examined pictures with my attorney, I chose to call it dumb luck.

 

***

 

At the county jail I refused protective custody, knowing that the moniker “ex-cop” would haunt me after my trial or plea deal, when I served my life sentence in a California penitentiary. As a courtesy to a brother officer (albeit a disturbed one), the Siskiyou County guards and deputies kept my law enforcement past out of the press and jail gossip.

The judge threw me into general population, and for a couple months, I pondered my future like a dog worries a bone: five consecutive 25-to-life sentences, plus 130 years for trying to kill police officers — and other gun-related charges.

The district attorney wouldn’t budge on his first and only plea offer: “Forty-five straight years. Take it or leave it. You’ll never get anything better from us.”

Standing before the judge in my orange jumpsuit, I respectfully declined. “I’m 42 years old, Your Honor. If I take this deal, I’ll die in prison. I’d rather go to trial.”

A top-notch attorney took my case at a reduced rate, because he was fascinated by my story. The only case law he could find relating to my situation dated back to the 1800s.

Modern stand-offs usually ended with an offender surrendering or shot to death. I had refused to surrender and survived 50 rounds fired by expert marksmen.

 

***

 

I hated the constant noise at the Siskiyou County Jail. Belching, screaming, coarse humor, laughter, rage, singing, babbling …

I sat in the Siskiyou County Jail, craving relief from the unceasing racket in general population. Suddenly the loudspeaker crackled.

“Line up at the door to attend church services …”

Church means peace and quiet — and maybe cookies. I’m in.

No one moved to the door but me.

No priest collars, no chants. Just straight talk from a guy who looked like a 70-year-old Marlboro Man. Pastor Ron wore cowboy boots and doffed his Stetson on a chair before he talked about things like Jesus, the Holy Spirit and eternity. It all went right over my head. And no cookies — but I soaked in peace and quiet for about an hour.

“Hey, you boys come back next week.”

Ron grinned, and I sensed that he was as genuine as the smokes in my pocket.

I did return, and after his preaching, sometimes a few hard-cases discussed religious stuff. In a few weeks of patrolling this strange, new beat, I traveled from “Not a chance, preacher” to “What’s this Jesus thing all about?”

I shot a question at Ron. “I’ve been coming here about a month now, and I sure don’t feel no Holy Spirit. Why is that?”

Ron explained, and nothing sunk in. But then a little wiry inmate with a worn-out Bible smiled and leaned close to my ear. He said, “Hey, bro, when the Holy Spirit comes inside you, you’re going to know it. That’s all I can tell you.”

I responded with “Whatever.” But his words gnawed at my soul for days.

Two weeks after my question about the Holy Spirit, I sat in the back of the jail chapel, fidgeting. As Ron talked, I began to feel unhinged, like I could see myself in a mirror for the first time. What I saw sickened me, and I knew I needed saving — or I was lost, now and forever.

Ron was asking us to stand and “make a decision for Christ,” but I just sat jiggling my knees, staring at the floor. Suddenly, I felt two strong arms encircling my shoulders — but no one was anywhere near me.

Compassion, peace, joy — awareness of God — soaked through my jumpsuit and into my heart. I experienced a father’s love for the first time in my life.

Stunned by the beyond-natural experience, I wondered what this old cop-turned-convict needed to do next.

The Marlboro Man came over, and I said, “Thanks, man.”

He said, “Praise Jesus, Grant. Praise Jesus …”

 

I wasn’t the only one to shed tears over my exciting change of heart that week. Doris came to visit, and during our conversation, I told her about my experience with God. I had so much to explain to her and so many things to ask forgiveness for.

“I accepted Jesus into my heart, Dor. I’m really born again! You know, a new person inside.”

She nearly fell off her chair, laughing. “Born again? Like the hocus-pocus that Jesus Freaks peddle on the streets?”

I was smiling, too, patiently trying to help her see that I wasn’t joking. Then it sank in all at once: I was a changed man. Tears filled Doris’ eyes.

“Whatcha crying for, hon? It’s something to celebrate. I really feel free!”

Doris wiped her nose, glancing around her at the concrete walls and bars. She shook her head and stood to go. “Obviously, Grant, you’re going crazy in here. And … I feel so sorry for you. Don’t you know that Jesus could never accept someone like you?”

Her words cut me — but I understood. Only weeks earlier, I would have said the same thing.

I looked into my wife’s eyes as a husband for the last time that day. She stopped visiting me, and she and Danny moved south, away from our corrupted dreams. Mom ended up in a state-run nursing home. And though I faced dying in prison as one of California’s prison “elders,” my life had really just begun.

The district attorney who offered me “45 years straight time; take it or leave it,” retired to Florida. The DA’s assistant quit, too, for a better job in another county. Then two other Siskiyou County District Attorneys moved away, leaving a brand-new DA from Los Angeles with loads of cases and temporary assistants.

My attorney had lunch with the new DA to “familiarize” him with my case.

“I don’t want to get your hopes up, Grant, but …” (he always started any positive reports this way) “with the new DA we might have a chance at a better plea deal.”

Living on the wrong side of prison bars, I had placed my future in God’s capable hands — and left it there. I had even stopped carrying my legal pad to take notes at meetings. Jesus had instilled an unnatural peace in my heart about who would be my judge, prosecutor, witnesses and jury. My rescuer was in charge of my upcoming trial — if it happened at all.

But in a miraculous turn of events, God began using a battering ram on the iron gates separating me from freedom. I received three new plea offers in two months.

Twenty-four years, then 18 years.

Then eight years — and I took it!

 

***

 

These days I encourage and teach young people at Living Faith Assembly of God in the rural community of Cottage Grove, Oregon. In the eyes of some of these young men and women I glimpse a reflection of myself, and I wonder who else is mentoring them through life. A violent mother or father? An immoral uncle? Does an inner rage churn beneath their smiles? What kind of man or woman will they grow up to be?

I used to ask my birth mother why my father never visited us, and she told me that he wasn’t a bad man, but that they just didn’t “get along.” The explanation only whetted my appetite to know him, and as I grew into my teens, I felt abandoned.

One day I ran across news clippings that Mom kept, describing Dad’s shootout with federal agents near Mexico. Dad had been muling (smuggling) heroin across the border. Knowing about my father’s life choices influenced my own.

 

Today I drive across historic bridges in Cottage Grove a free man but an ex-felon. Tears sometimes well up as I travel any highway I choose. My past life of crime and violence doesn’t merit the beauty and relationships God has gifted me with.

I am grateful that I ended my sentence at California State Prison, Solano, because God proved himself to me there. With time served, I spent a little more than three years in a facility designed for 2,600 inmates, but housing 4,200.

Riots, thefts, bribery, drugs, gangs, perversions, rape, stabbings, murder …

I lived in this hellish prison system, but I never became part of it. God protected me every hour, and I worked with a ministry team of pastors who had been sentenced to prison themselves for a variety of crimes.

We taught Bible classes to abused men. We loved and prayed for officers and inmates like I used to be: men who abused others.

And though I dared not tell anyone that I was a former cop, I used my experience on both sides of the law to nudge men toward a Holy Spirit prison transformation like mine.

Behind the prison pallor and sneer, behind the dead-man’s stare and badge, every man and woman needs God to save them from themselves.

Sadly, my little Cajun mom passed away while I served time at Solano, and I came out of prison with two heavy strikes against me. I faced a restrictive four-year parole, including unannounced visits from a supervising officer. In my mid-40s, graying, jobless and rejected by society, I had lost everything.

But God is compassionate, loving and merciful.

Difficult months passed, and I was blessed with a good job working as a ranch hand. One day my parole officer demanded proof of my sobriety (in a container), and I asked him, “Is there any way we can speed up my release from parole?”

He looked at me, amused. His reply dripped with sarcasm. “Get real, Grant. You’re a violent ex-felon. No way that’s gonna happen.”

Three weeks later, my P.O. knocked on my door again.

“Hey, man, you wanna get off parole for good?”

He’s jerking your chain, Grant. Easy …

The old Grant would have decked the man, but I calmly said, “That’s not funny to a guy like me.”

“I may joke around, but not about something like this.”

He handed me a manila envelope with papers to sign and recommendations that my parole be stamped “Early Discharge!”

For months, my parole officer had been driving by my church on his way home from the office. He took note each time he passed, that my old pickup was parked at church whenever I wasn’t at work.

Within about a year after my prison term ended, I was a completely free man.

 

I’ve been married to a beautiful, understanding woman for five years now, and we live in a home where God’s peace rules our hearts. I’m a 53-year-old foster dad, and children’s voices echo in our house all day long.

Behind razor-wire fences God became my loving father, and now, as a free man, he mentors me as a son.

One thought on “50 Rounds to Freedom

  1. Pingback: 50 Rounds to Freedom | Richard Drebert

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