I grew up in the 1960s in one of the many daisy-chain suburbs surrounding Los Angeles. Seven of us, two adults and five children, struggled for living space in a tiny two-bedroom rental house. My father worked on an assembly line during the day; my mother worked nights as a waitress. Our family was hard-working, but the foundation was dysfunctional—a house built on sinking sand.
Church, religion, and the Bible were unknown. Mother was a pill-popper. I don’t know what she took or where she got them, but she was always looking for sleeping pills when she came home in the morning and something to get her going when she left for work in the evening. Whether down or up, she had a fiery temper and would spank us with whatever implement was handy. I always felt that she cared the least for me. I think that feeling was the lead domino in a spiraling loss of self-esteem. One day, when I was nine, she abruptly ran off with the cook where she worked. Perhaps she would have contacted us had it not been for a car wreck that ended her life shortly thereafter.
Dad, who never had more than a social drink, rapidly found solace in alcohol. One morning, I awoke to find him molesting me. Eventually the police intervened, but he and my brothers were able to convince them that I was only having a bad dream.
That was the proverbial last straw. I felt isolated and unloved by a mother who had abandoned me, a father who had molested me, and siblings who seemed indifferent. So at age 10 I ran away from home, only to be picked up as a runaway. For three years, my life was a vicious recurring cycle: running away from foster homes, being picked up like a stray dog, and being sent back to juvenile hall. All told, I stayed in eight foster homes. Some were nice, but you weren’t allowed to stay in those you liked because you might become too attached. Most gave you food and water and little else.
While I was in juvenile hall, I learned about drugs from some of the older girls. “A great way to forget your problems,” they said. This was the 1960s, and California was becoming a major narcotics hub. Little was known about the dangers of drugs, and they were easy to obtain. When I was high on the drug Seconal, commonly called “Reds,” my poor self-image disappeared. I was one of the gang (my group of other users). I was accepted. I quickly had friends.
At age 13, I met Sammy Perillo, who was 19. We crossed the border into Mexico and married in “quickie” fashion. To get closer to Sammy and his drug of choice, heroin, I started shooting up. Sammy and I had a beautiful little girl who died as an infant. After he went to prison, I delivered his twins, but only one survived. I never saw Sammy again.
To support my habit and my son, I danced at a strip joint. Needing money (addiction is not cheap), I teamed up with a man named Mike Briddle to rob one of its frequent customers. Fleeing California with Mike and his wife, we hitchhiked to Houston, Texas, where we were picked up by a stranger needing help to move into his new house. Mike noticed that the man had a roll of money. High on PCP (also called angel dust), we murdered him and his friend and left for Colorado.
Our trio stayed in a seedy hotel in Denver when I realized I could no longer withstand the emotional upheaval within, that little glow from a divine coal that was waiting to burst into flames. I confessed to the police, and they extradited me to Texas, where I had been indicted in absentia for capital murder. A swift trial followed, then a verdict of death by lethal injection.
During my daily high in California, I had often said, “Let me die with a needle in my arm.” Now it would come to pass. My own words had condemned me. While I waited in Houston to transfer to a women’s prison before my execution, a woman involved in prison ministry, came to visit. This angel talked about Christ and his path to forgiveness. I was receptive. I was ready. And I was eager to hear more. Under her direction, I recited the sinner’s prayer. After 24 years of being tossed about like a dry chunk of dirt, God poured in the waters of life and began molding me for his purpose.
Many believers encounter Jesus in dramatic fashion, and they are changed instantly, like Saul on the Damascus Road. For others, like me, salvation feels more like a process than a moment. It takes time.
When I first accepted Jesus, I felt a change, but I found it hard to believe the change was for real. How could God ever forgive me for the horrible crime I had committed? My mind said this could not be so. My soul was in torment.
After I was transferred to a prison in Huntsville, Texas, my angel from Houston still visited me. She brought me a Bible, and to relieve my doubts she would frequently say, “Pam, you must forgive yourself. To do otherwise is denying God’s grace and mercy.” But she was also adamant that I confirm my salvation by using the gift of the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues—which I just couldn’t seem to do. Once again, I felt dejected and unloved—even by God.
The bed in my concrete cell was an iron slab cantilevered from the wall. I crawled under it and pulled the covers down to the floor to form a tent. Inside, I cried and begged God to allow me to speak in tongues, but all I could manage were inarticulate groans. My tears covered the floor in puddles.
(For what it’s worth, I do not condemn this godly woman for her convictions on the gift of tongues. In fact, she gave me the motivation to press on and continue studying the Bible, where I learned that the Holy Spirit bestows many other gifts.)
It was only after a woman named Karla Faye Tucker arrived on Texas Death Row that I grew to experience full confidence in my salvation. I tried to lead her to Christ myself, but God meant it to come from another source: a prison puppet show performed by Teen Challenge, along with a free Bible. Karla Faye’s redemption was dramatic, remarkable, and the subject of movies. Her vocal commitment to Christ resounded throughout the world before her execution. And her magnificent conversion was the spiritual cement I needed. I knew then that in Christ, God can forgive anyone, no matter how severe their transgressions.
Prison without Christ is probably as close to Hell as one can come. You are alone, spiritually empty, and consumed with hate. But we Christians have a joy that provokes others to ask why. Fortunately, the Texas prison system allows for church, Bible-study groups, and even a faith-based dorm developed in Karla Faye’s memory. These meetings are open to everyone, and I have shared my testimony on many occasions.
In 2000, I received welcome news: My sentence had been reduced from death to life in prison. And today, as I pray for parole after nearly 40 years of incarceration, I give thanks for how God was directing my path to salvation, even in my lowest moments—even as I made one terrible choice after another. As grateful as I am to have escaped death row, I am a thousand times more grateful for the promise of eternal life.
Pamela Perillo trains service dogs for disabled veterans through the Patriot PAWS program. John T. Thorngren is the author of Salvation on Death Row: The Pamela Perillo Story (KiCam Projects).