From a Life of Crime to a Life of Hope
AS TOLD BY COSTA KOULLAPIS
I STARED AT THE DIRTY WALLS OF MY PRISON CELL AND DETERMINED THAT I NEEDED TO FIND A WAY TO GET MY HANDS ON A LARGE AMOUNT OF MONEY SO THAT I COULD BREAK OUT OF THE CYCLE OF CRIME I WAS IN AND START A NEW LIFE.
AS I sat there—miserable and dejected—I recalled that within the previous year, 11 of my friends had died. One was hanged for murder, another committed suicide while awaiting trial for murder, three overdosed on drugs, two were beaten to death in street brawls, and four died in motor accidents. Also, several other friends of mine were in various prisons serving sentences for serious crimes.
So in the gloom of my prison cell, I prayed desperately to God, whoever he might be, to show me a way out of this criminal maze. It was not until some time later that I received the answer to that prayer. In the meantime, I managed to evade the serious charge of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. A plea bargain proved helpful, and I was able to get off with a lesser charge and a reduced sentence. But let me first explain how I came to be in that predicament.
I was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1944 and grew up there. My early years were unhappy, and our family life was often made miserable by Father’s violent fits of temper, aggravated by his frequent bouts of heavy drinking. He was also a heavy gambler, and his mood swings resulted in severe verbal and physical abuse for us all, particularly for my mother. To escape the constant fights, I took to the streets.
My Path to Crime
As a result, I became worldly-wise at a very early age. For example, when I was eight years old, I learned two lessons. The first was when I was caught with toys that I had stolen from a neighbor’s home. I received a severe beating from my father. I can still hear his angry threat: “If I ever catch you with stolen stuff again, I’ll break your neck!” I resolved not so much that I would never steal again but that I would never be caught again. ‘Next time I’ll hide it and won’t be found out,’ I thought to myself.
The second lesson that I learned when still quite young was unrelated. At a Scripture class at school, our teacher taught us that God has a personal name. “God’s name is Jehovah,” she said to our surprise, “and he will listen to any prayer you say, as long as you ask the prayer in the name of his Son, Jesus.” That made quite an impression on my young mind, although it did not halt my slide toward a life of crime. I had actually become an expert at shoplifting and burglary by the time I reached high school. My friends at school were of no help, since many of them had already spent time in reform schools for various crimes.
As the years passed, I became a habitual criminal. I was involved in countless muggings, burglaries, car thefts, and violent acts of assault before I was even out of my teens. Since I was constantly hanging around poolrooms and bars, running errands for pimps, prostitutes, and criminals, I did not even complete my first year at technical high school.
I associated regularly with hardened criminals, who did not flinch at maiming anyone who betrayed them. I learned that it paid to keep my mouth shut and never brag about my accomplishments or flash money around. To do so would only serve to broadcast that a crime had been committed, which could lead to police attention and awkward questioning. Worse still, it might lead to unexpected visits from other criminals wanting a slice of the spoils.
Yet, even with those precautions, at times I did come under police surveillance on suspicion of being involved in illegal activities. But I took care never to have in my possession anything that might link me to a crime or that could incriminate me. Once, the police raided our home at three o’clock in the morning. They searched the whole house twice, looking for electrical goods—a local wholesaler’s stock had been stolen. They found nothing. I was taken to the police station for fingerprinting but was not charged.
Into the Drug Scene
From the age of 12, I began regularly using mind-altering drugs. My health started to suffer from such abuse, and on several occasions I almost overdosed. Before long I was introduced to a doctor who had strong underworld connections. This led to my becoming a dealer in drugs, and I soon learned that supplying a few distributors posed much less of a risk for me because I could remain out of sight while others took the risks.
Sadly, some of the people I had drug dealings with overdosed and died or committed serious crimes while under the influence of drugs. One “friend” murdered a prominent medical doctor. This made news headlines throughout the country. He then tried to incriminate me, but I had not even heard about the incident until the police arrived at my doorstep. In fact, the police would often come and question me about various crimes that had been committed.
One day, however, I did something very foolish. After a week-long drug and alcohol binge, I attacked two people in a rage after a misunderstanding and badly injured them. The following morning they identified me as their assailant, and I was arrested on the charge of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. That is how I landed in prison.
Get Rich, Then Go Straight
After being released from prison, I heard of an opening for a stock controller with a pharmaceutical company. I applied and convinced the employer that I was right for the job. With a recommendation from a friend who was already in the company, I got the job. This, I thought, was the way for me to make a lot of money and go somewhere else to make a clean start. So I applied myself to learning all aspects of the business as quickly as possible and stayed up late each night studying the names of all the drugs. I felt sure that this was going to be the road to a new life.
My plan was to bide my time and earn the trust of my employers. Then, at an opportune time, I would break in and steal a large quantity of the particular drugs that I knew to be very valuable on the black market, sell them, and become a relatively rich man overnight. I had worked out what I believed to be a watertight alibi so as to ensure my freedom and a new life.
The time arrived for me to put the plan into action. One night, after cautiously entering the warehouse, I looked at shelves stocked with drugs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. There I saw my chance to start a life free from crime and violence. But, for the first time ever, my conscience began to bother me. What caused this sudden twinge of conscience when I had almost forgotten that I even had a conscience? Let me tell you how this came about.
Some weeks before this, the manager and I had a discussion about the meaning of life. In response to something he said, I replied that as a last resort, one could pray. “To whom?” he asked. “To God,” I replied. “But there are many gods that people pray to,” he said, “so to which one would you pray?” I said: “To Almighty God.” “Oh,” he continued, “and what is his name?” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, like you and me and everyone else, Almighty God has a personal name,” was his reply. That sounded logical, but I was getting annoyed. So I asked irritably: “Well, what is God’s name?” “The name of Almighty God is Jehovah!” he replied.
Suddenly the years parted like a curtain, and the memory of that lesson in the classroom when I was only eight years old came flooding back. To my surprise, the impact that the discussion with the manager had on me was stunning. We sat for hours enjoying a serious conversation. The next day he brought me the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life.* I read the entire book that night and was immediately convinced that I had found the truth and the real meaning of life. For the next two weeks, we did little else but discuss the various subjects in that amazing blue book.
So, as I sat in the darkness and quiet of the warehouse, my conscience told me that my plans to steal and sell the drugs were all wrong. I quietly left and went home, determined that from then on I would steal no more.
A Complete Change
In the following days, I told my family that I had decided to start a new way of life, and I began to share with them some of the Bible truths that I had learned. My father wanted to throw me out of the house. But my brother John defended me, saying to my father: “This is the first time in his life that Costa has ever been involved in something that is not criminal, and you want to throw him out? I am going to find out more about this.” To my pleasant surprise, John asked me to study the Bible with him. From then on, everyone who came to me looking for drugs received a Truth book instead! Soon I was conducting 11 Bible studies with the aid of that book.
Then I learned that the manager of the company was not a Witness himself. His wife had been a Witness for some 18 years, but he had “never had the time to do anything about the truth.” So he arranged for an experienced Witness to conduct a regular Bible study with me. My studies soon helped me see the need to confront other issues in life, and it was not long before the truth of God’s Word began to set me free from my worldly ways.—John 8:32.
However, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the speed with which things had happened over just a few weeks’ time. Major changes confronted me, and I began to realize that a great warfare between the flesh and the spirit awaited me if I continued to follow the direction my Bible studies were pointing out to me. On the other hand, I realized that probable death, or at least spending much of my life in prison, lay ahead of me if I continued living the way I had until then. So after a great deal of thought and fervent prayer, I decided to follow the way of the truth. I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah God by water baptism six months later, on April 4, 1971.
Rewards for Going Straight
When I look back, I am sometimes overcome with emotion as I think of the blessings I have enjoyed since making my decision to abandon the way of crime. Of the 11 persons I started studying with during those first few tumultuous weeks, 5 are still walking in the way of the truth. My mother also accepted a Bible study and became a baptized Witness, continuing to serve God faithfully until she died in 1991. My two brothers dedicated their lives to Jehovah and now serve as elders. I was also able to help my aunt learn the truth, and she has served full-time in the ministry for the past 15 years.
The manager of the pharmaceutical company I worked for was so encouraged by the changes in my life that he began to take Bible truth more seriously. One year after I was baptized, he also symbolized his dedication to God by water baptism. Later he served as an elder for many years in one of the Pretoria congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I am now married to a dedicated Christian sister. Leonie and I moved to Australia in 1978. There our two sons, Elijah and Paul, were born. My family’s encouragement has been a real source of strength to me. I have the privilege of serving as an elder in Canberra, Australia’s capital. Each day my gratitude goes to Jehovah, who rescued me from an empty life of crime that was leading to misery and death. More than that, he gave meaning to my life by providing a real hope for me and my loved ones.
Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
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When I was 12
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With my wife and two sons today