May 25, 2012
This is a story of a troubled teen seeking redemption as an adult and struggling to redefine himself in the minds of strangers who consider him a monster.
It’s the story of a contrite man seeking forgiveness for a crime that shocked the community.
Of a man trying to prove people can change.
It’s the story of Gary Flakes.
That’s Flakes as in “Grant and Flakes,” two local teenagers who went to prison for the shotgun slayings of 13-year-old Andy Westbay and 15-year-old Scott Hawrysiak on Valentine’s Day 1997.
Flakes, who recently turned 32, is a free man. A married man. A full-time student. A mentor and aspiring motivational speaker dedicated to helping at-risk youth.
He insists he’s a much different person from the young man who spent 12 years and five months imprisoned for his role in the brutal slayings.
“I’m definitely out here changing my life and being positive,” Flakes told me recently. “I consider myself a living example.”
I reminded Flakes many believe he should spend the rest of his life in prison. That he should get no mercy. That he can’t be rehabilitated.
He asks only for a chance to redeem himself.
It’s important to note Flakes didn’t come to me seeking publicity. I reached out to him.
In February, I wrote a Side Streets column recognizing the 15th anniversary of the deaths of Andy and Scott. I told it through the eyes of William Fortune, who was supposed to be with them the night they died. Andy, Scott and William were called the Three Musketeers by their families because they were such close friends.
Many readers posted angry comments in response to that column. There remains a good deal of pain over the killings and bitterness at the outcome of the trials of Grant and Flakes.
Neither Flakes nor Grant was convicted of first-degree murder, which triggered community outrage in 1999.
I remember the outrage. I felt it, myself. And I wanted to hear Flakes’ story, so I contacted him and he agreed to talk. We sat down for nearly two hours in April and had several subsequent conversations.
He doesn’t present himself as a victim. He doesn’t want pity.
He just doesn’t want to be forever known as the 16-year-old who police say was driving when his 17-year-old friend, Jeron Grant, randomly shot Andy and Scott as they walked home along North Canoe Creek Drive in Cheyenne Meadows.
“In a lot of other peoples’ eyes . . . this is something that defines me,” Flakes said. “That’s not the legacy that I want to leave. That’s not the legacy that I’m going to leave.”
Flakes wants to prove he’s changed. To become an asset to society. To mentor kids like the boy he was in 1995 who skipped school and got in trouble. The boy whose mother put him on a train in Detroit and sent him to live with his father, an Army medic stationed at Fort Carson, hoping he would turn his life around.
That boy, Flakes said, had grown up thinking it was cool to drink, smoke dope, chase girls and cruise around town with guns in the car. He grew up learning “misinformation,” as he calls it, about life. It led him to fight, get kicked out of high school and become friends with people like Grant.
Flakes knows differently now, he said. Years of reading in the prison library enlightened him.
“A prison is what you make it,” Flakes said. “It can be a monastery, a 24 Hour Fitness. For me, it was a university. I made it a university.”
Books had a profound effect on him, especially “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” published after the 1965 murder of the human rights activist who grew up as Malcolm Little in the Detroit area.
“It was eye-opening,” Flakes said. “Here’s somebody they called Detroit Red. He had been involved in drugs, stealing (and) he went to prison.”
Flakes sees a lot of parallels with his life and the impact of the education he received from reading.
“Knowledge completely changed (Malcolm X), and he took on a whole new path and just how he lived his life,” Flakes said. “It showed me that no matter what your path has been, you can change.”
I saw parallels between Flakes’ life and the life of prominent Colorado Springs resident, the Rev. Promise Lee, founder and pastor of Relevant Word ministries.
In 1974, Lee was a self-described 16-year-old thug who shot and killed 20-year-old Daniel Hocking during a drug deal, according to his 2005 autobiography “Pardoned.”
He served four years in prison. Upon his release, he sank back into a life of guns, drugs and violence until he experienced a religious conversion in 1982.
The charismatic Lee became a neighborhood activist who helped drive drug dealers and prostitutes out of the Hillside neighborhood and built his own ministry and has served since as a leader in the community.
Flakes flinched when I suggested perhaps he, like Lee, was a thug or a punk at 16 and that in the minds of the public, he still is.
But he conceded he sees similar street-tough youth on television and wonders if that’s how he appeared to the world.
“Was that me at 16?” he said. “I thought I was grown. I had girls. I was drinking, you know, smoking weed, things that if I see a kid doing now, I’d probably grab him by his hand, take him somewhere else and show him another route.”
I wish it were that easy. But Flakes is sincere.
He’s convinced if someone had intervened when he was 15, his life would have taken a different course. He believes the vast majority of prisoners can be rehabilitated, especially those convicted as teens, like himself and Lee.
And like them, Flakes credits his spiritual conversion in 2005 with changing his life.
Flakes is a devout Muslim, and his faith drives his need for forgiveness. It also explains his refusal to judge others, especially teen killers.
He refuses to label them — or himself at 16 — as “bad kids.”
“I don’t look at them as bad; I kind of bleed for them a bit,” he said. “I don’t think I was a bad kid.”
He insists the same is true of Jeron Grant, the shooter who “had to get something off my chest” when he executed Andy and Scott, according to his confessions to police and friends.
“Jeron’s not a bad guy,” Flakes said. “He’s not.”
I interrupted him. I believe Grant is evil, and so is anyone who randomly, ruthlessly kills for the thrill of it.
“I wouldn’t want to define anybody’s life by one event,” Flakes responded, suggesting that Grant is capable of changing his life, too. He noted he’s had no contact with Grant since the killings.
Flakes understands and agrees people need to be held accountable for their crimes.
“I believe that you do have to have strict punishment for those,” he said. “Especially kids when they commit serious offenses.”
It appears to me incarceration worked for Flakes. He came out of prison contrite, determined to return to Colorado Springs with a positive attitude and start over. He was rehabilitated, I said, while he paid his debt to society.
“I don’t think prison time pays a debt to society,” he said. “It may satisfy some things — people knowing you are put away. But how do you really work to restore a wrong? You have to do things like reaching out to (at-risk youth) so this type of incident won’t happen again.”
His comments echoed Lee’s autobiography. In it, Lee said all his work in Hillside and the ministry was his way of “still trying to pay my debt to society and to God.”
And Lee said the fact Flakes chose to return to Colorado Springs, rather than live anonymously elsewhere, is persuasive evidence that his life conversion is authentic.
“It would be a lot easier to walk away,” Lee said. “It takes a lot of positive audacity to come back to the place where you have done damage, acknowledge that and become a positive contributor to that community.”
Though Flakes insists Grant, too, can turn his life around, the confessed shooter didn’t show signs of it when he was freed on parole in 2008. A year later, he was caught with crack cocaine and sent back to prison, where he is completing his six-year sentence.
Flakes went to a halfway house in 2009, returned to prison for six months due to a parole violation — he was seen at a bar — and was released in 2011. As of Jan. 28, he is a free man.
Flakes insists he will never do anything again to cause his return to prison. I believe him.
I was impressed with his intellect, his positive attitude and his remorse.
Perhaps understandably, he declined to talk about some things: his father, retired Army medic Gary Reed; his mother, Catherine McGibbon, who sat with a Bible in her lap during his eight-day trial, praying and weeping at times; or his wife, whom he wouldn’t identify.
And Flakes refused to discuss the killings in detail. Repeatedly, I asked him why Andy and Scott died that night. Did something trigger their killings? Is there any explanation?
“It’s not something I really get into too many details about,” Flakes said. “I do keep it, bury it and keep it bottled up.”
Flakes prefers to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.
Flakes longs for a chance to meet with the families of Andy and Scott. He wonders if they read the letter of apology he presented at his sentencing in 1999. He said his apologies are sincere, and he longs for forgiveness.
“That’s something I have always prayed for,” he said. “Even putting in prayer requests when I was incarcerated. That the families could have that healing and that there would be forgiveness.”
He reached out through “restorative justice” mediation, offering to meet with the Hawrysiak and Westbay families under any conditions or terms. But they have not responded.
While he remains hopeful the families will meet with him, Flakes is pushing ahead with his new life.
“I’m thankful for that, every day, to be given that second chance,” he said.
He is studying business management at Pikes Peak Community College and hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years.
And he is working with the sons of single mothers he knows, serving as a mentor.
“Little guys need strong males in their lives,” he said.
He also speaks publicly about his experiences to youth groups in Denver and Colorado Springs.
“I talk about my past,” he said. “I’m raw with them.”
He is a powerful speaker, said Norman Bacheldor, a 54-year-old builder from Basalt who was in the audience when Flakes joined a panel discussion with at-risk teens four years ago.
“I was blown away,” Bacheldor said. “Gary was the strongest presenter, the most articulate, the most difficult story.”
Bacheldor was so impressed by Flakes that he became his mentor.
“We talk about once a week,” Bacheldor said, “I hope he finds the platform where his story can inspire thousands and thousands.
“He’s chosen with great struggle and great opposition to redefine his life, to say ‘That’s not who I am. I’m not just an ex-con who just hopes to get a job someday.’ That’s one of the things I really find fantastic about Gary.”
In his talks, Flakes urges youth to shift their thinking “from street law to law school.” He urges them not to get submerged in the subculture where crime and drugs and guns become “normal” life.
“If you can transform these individuals, you can transform society,” he said.
Just as he said he has been transformed.
“I believe in the redemption of a soul,” said Flakes. “I consider myself a living example.”
This is a tough one for me. I can’t imagine the grief of the victims’ families and friends. I have incredible sympathy for them.
But Flakes has served his time. In fact, as ex-cons go, he represents a best-case scenario.
He served his time and committed himself to changing his life, changing the lives of troubled youth and striving to become a productive member of society.
My question is whether Colorado Springs will allow it.