I Was a Professional Burglar
BANG! The judge’s gavel echoed through the courtroom. His next words, though spoken softly, seemed to roar at me. “I hereby sentence you to 15 years in prison.” I’ll never forget those words nor the events that followed. The police officer quickly escorted me from the courtroom back to the holding cell that had been my home for the past three months.
Early the next morning, I was led from my cell, down a corridor and into a small room, where I was fitted with a leather belt that was about five inches [13 cm] wide and that buckled in the back. On the front were two large metal rings onto which my hands were cuffed. On completing this procedure, the two officers took me down another hallway, where I joined a group of men who were handcuffed in the same way. The men were standing in two rows, side by side. I was led to my position in line, and a chain that ran between the two lines was lifted and locked onto a third ring, on the side of the leather belt.
Afterward, the six officers now on hand led us to the elevator that would take us to a specially built bus. Here I was, sitting next to a murderer and in front of drug dealers, rapists, and robbers. All of us were going to the same place—prison!
What, you may wonder, led up to these circumstances? Let me tell you about my background and the events that landed me in prison.
I Wasn’t Born a Criminal
My parents were married just after World War II, and in 1947 my older brother was born. Two years later I came along, followed by another brother 18 months later. So with three babies, my parents made the long journey west from Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A., to the state of Oregon on the Pacific Coast. Then we trekked north to Washington State and settled in the city of Bellevue. Back then, life seemed normal to me. Although we weren’t a very close-knit family, we had regular outings together and attended the local Lutheran church. Respect for God, Jesus, and the Bible was customary in a family from Virginia. In January 1960 my baby sister came along. How excited my mother was to have finally the little girl she had always wanted!
However, something happened about six months later that changed our way of life. We moved again, this time to the heavily wooded town of Maple Valley. We stopped going to church, there were no more family outings, and my father started drinking heavily. It still saddens me to recall that move. We were depressed for a long time afterward. I believe that this contributed to my wayward life as a teenager.
Why I Chose a Life of Crime
Maple Valley, as you can imagine just from hearing the name, wasn’t an exciting place for a rambunctious teenager in the 1960’s. So I would make my own excitement. This was easy for me because of the bad crowd I associated with in school. After-school events would turn into drunken parties, followed by fistfights and drugs. On a number of these occasions, I would stumble home at three or four in the morning—drunk. Or I would not come home for several days, staying with my friends. Strangely enough, I knew I was doing wrong, yet my parents never seemed to notice.
Sometimes, we would steal just to see if we could get away with it. Once, I stole a car and went joyriding. But I was caught and spent over a year in the local juvenile institution, Green Hill.
By the time I was released from Green Hill, I was in high school. Here I thought I could put to use the things I had “learned” from my juvenile ‘crime school.’ Little did I realize that the Biblical saying, “Bad associations spoil useful habits,” was having its effect.—1 Corinthians 15:33.
I was about 16 years old when I met someone different, a young man named Jim Carley. He and his family had recently moved from Idaho to my town. Very few knew him as Jim; he was better known as Spud, nicknamed after the famous Idaho potato. He was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jim and I attended the same school. By observing him, I could tell that he was different from my other friends. He got along with everyone but did not engage in their wrongdoing. This impressed me. I remember clearly his telling me why this wicked system would soon end and be replaced by a new world of peace under the rule of God’s heavenly Kingdom.
I wanted to hear more, so I attended his “church,” called the Kingdom Hall, a couple of times. This was in 1967. What I heard there was interesting, but I felt that this new world was something that was far into the future. Besides, I was having fun now. I was in the business of filling “orders” for anything someone wanted—tools, car parts, stereos, television sets. Of course, these “orders” were filled by thievery and cunning. Why should I go to a church that condemned my exhilarating “business”?
At the age of 19, I quit school and married my high school sweetheart. One year later I was the father of a baby girl, Rhonda Jean. With this added responsibility, I felt the need to provide for them but only through dishonest means.
I Have Found the Truth!
I was still in the “business” of using and selling drugs, stealing cars, and burglarizing homes, but the “business” finally caught up with me. I was arrested and soon found myself in the handcuffed position described earlier and on my way to prison. Here I was, 20 years old, with a wife and a six-month-old daughter. And now I was going to prison for the next 15 years! I realized I had to do something to get control of my life. I began to think back to what Spud had said about the Bible.
While in prison, I began to read the Bible along with secular self-help books. ‘Reading these books will help me grow up,’ I thought. They did not help. Nothing helped until another inmate in the Corrections Center in Shelton, Washington, asked if I would like to sit in on a Bible discussion with some of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the local congregation. I was told they came into the prison weekly. I agreed. From the first time I met the two Witnesses, I knew that what I was learning from the Bible and the study book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life was right. I had found the truth!
Witnessing in Prison
At times as many as 15 inmates would join me in my weekly Bible studies with the Witnesses. During this time my wife decided I had gone crazy in jail, and she began divorce proceedings. This greatly tested my newfound faith.
I decided to strengthen my faith by taking in more spiritual food. I began by reading the entire Bible along with Bible publications, including back issues of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines. I was developing a strong faith. Also, I began preaching to anyone who would listen. Soon I was avoided by many of the inmates. Looking back, I see it was a real protection for me.
I did, however, have many interesting conversations with others in prison. One was with the Catholic priest, who said that I was being taught twisted things and that people could make the Bible say whatever they wanted. To prove his assertion, he said he would show me that the Bible states that there is no God. I accepted his offer. He opened his Bible to the book of Psalms and positioned his hand so that his index finger would cover part of the verse. I said: “Please move your finger so that I can read the entire verse.” He answered: “Just read below my finger.” I did so, and to my amazement it said: “There is no God.” “There,” he said, “that proves it. There is no God!” Again I asked to see the entire verse. This time he moved his hand. And there it said: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.”—Psalm 14:1, King James Version.
Paroled and Determined
Because of my changed attitude and conduct, I was granted parole after only two years of confinement. That was late in 1971. Maybe some thought I had ‘got religion’ just to fool the parole board. But now I was out and more determined than ever not to fall back into bad associations. I deliberately chose to live in an area where I knew that my former associates would not be. I knew it would not be wise to contact any of my old buddies. They also avoided me because they had heard that I had become some kind of “priest” and was preaching to everyone.
I continued my Bible studies and began regularly attending the meetings of the Covington Congregation in Kent, Washington. The preaching work played an ever-increasing role in my life, and in June 1972, I was baptized. I was trying to maintain balance in secular matters while at the same time serving God and teaching my daughter the Bible. She was now almost three years old and was living with her mother, my former wife. It proved to be a real challenge that lasted 16 long and frustrating years. I will admit, there were times I would feel that things were not going fast enough to suit me. Then I would recall the Scriptural admonition: “As far as it depends upon you, be peaceable with all men. . . . ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says Jehovah.’”—Romans 12:18, 19.
Many nights were spent weeping and praying. My world at that point was very much like the typical weather of the Puget Sound area, gray and dreary with some occasional sunshine. My “sunshine” came in the form of theocratic activities, such as meetings and assemblies where one can form new friendships and renew old ones. At one such assembly, I met someone who would make a lasting impression on me, and after two years of getting to know each other, Mary Hughes and I were married in August 1974.
In July of the following year, we had a son whom we named Trey (from Tom III). I knew that in this marriage, God would always be first, especially since I had just recently been appointed as a ministerial servant in the Christian congregation. Because of this privilege, I realized that a new door of opportunity was open to me in the service of Jehovah. I was determined to take full advantage of it and continue to serve him. I applied myself, always relying on God to teach me how to grow spiritually. Whenever I was asked to handle an assignment, I would accept, trusting in him to give me the needed wisdom. Then, in 1987, I was appointed as an elder.
I have learned over the years that doing things Jehovah’s way is always the wisest course. Do not become impatient. This was further impressed on me when, in the spring of 1990, my daughter Rhonda, then 20 years old, came home to live with us and became a baptized Witness. I was once again reminded how powerful the truth is. For legal custody reasons, I had had no contact with her for the previous eight years. Jehovah blessed my efforts of years ago when I planted seeds of Bible truth with my daughter during the short visitations granted by the courts.
Rhonda seemed to remember almost everything Mary and I had taught her about the Bible. And what an impression our family life had made on her! Since that spring day, Rhonda has progressed rapidly in Bible knowledge.
When I look back at what my life was and then look at what it is now, I have to say that keeping busy in serving God is truly the best safeguard from Satan’s snares. Instead of that restraining leather belt that I so despised, I now experience a great liberating, a liberation from imprisonment to the freedom of being a peace-promoting minister of God.—As told by Tom McDaniel.
[Picture on page 12]
When I was prisoner 626023 in a Washington State correctional center
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The McDaniel family—Mary, Tom, daughter Rhonda, and son Trey