It happened in a blur. One minute we were enjoying a night out, shooting pool. The next thing I knew, we were running from the law—wanted for murder.
I’d always looked up to my out-of-town cousin, Bobby. I was thrilled when he invited me to come along that night. The Marine Room was well known in my circle of friends as a place that didn’t card minors. At 17, a high school sophomore, I was confident they’d serve me.
Alcohol abuse was prevalent in my rural Pennsylvania home. My biological dad drank himself to death. My mom couldn’t tell me not to drink, since she did—excessively—every day. She did try to keep me home that night. “It’s too late,” she said, when we started out the door at 11 p.m. I begged Bobby to talk Mom into it. He did. We were off, along with my stepbrother Sid.
A few games of pool and several drinks in, Bobby told us he was going to rob the place. While surprised at his sudden intentions, the alcohol seemed to dull any impulse for protest. Sid and I would leave—as locals, we’d be recognized—and Bobby would commit the robbery alone.
We waited outside. It was taking too long. After several minutes, we poked our heads in the door—Bobby had brutally murdered the bar owner. He shouted, “Don’t just stand there! Help me find the money!” Before long, we were on the run.
I followed Bobby to New York City. We visited drug dens and stayed in roach-infested motel rooms. But I couldn’t escape the reality of what had happened. I decided to return to Pennsylvania and turn myself in. Bobby said, “Tell them the truth, Gene. It was all me.”
I told the detectives everything I knew—and as I did, I realized I wouldn’t be going home. Because I was present when the crime was committed, I was charged with murder. A public defender convinced me to plead guilty in hopes of receiving a lenient sentence. “Maybe you’ll be out in 10 years,” he said.
A day before my 18th birthday, the judge sentenced me: “For the rest of your natural life,” without the possibility of parole.
‘Real Men Make Commitments’
Life in prison mimics most of the stories and stereotypes you’ve heard. Violence, drugs, gangs, assaults—they’re all there. So are the characters. I met a wide and varied cast. Two men, in particular, stand out. The first was a fellow lifer, a jailhouse Jesus freak named Warner. The second was a local preacher named Larry.
Guys called Warner “Big Moses.” He was larger than life. He’d wake up early every morning and shout, “Get up, you convicts, and praise the Lord! This is the day the Lord has made! Rise up! Rejoice and be glad in it!” Guys would shout back, “Be quiet, Moses! It’s too early!”
There are a lot of “religious guys” in prison, but Warner was the real deal. He genuinely loved his fellow inmates, and served and encouraged them. I can’t tell you how many times he posted up outside my cell, confronting me about decisions I was making. He always had a word for me—especially when it was the last thing I wanted to hear.
I met Larry when he visited as part of Prison Invasion ’86, a nationwide outreach event staged by an Orlando-based organization called Christian Prison Ministries. It’s a long story how I even found my way into those meetings, because I went kicking and screaming. God had used a number of people: my mom (who had recently come to faith in Christ), people who wrote me letters, fellow inmates like Warner, and members of the prison staff who knew the Lord.