Despite stumbles, an addict keeps a valued friend

Where was Michael Banyard?

I couldn't find him. Nobody could. Not his family. Not his friends. Not the federal judge who had set him free from prison and then become his friend.

"Is Michael still alive?" I wondered. This was last summer, and I was talking to the judge.

"All we can do during times like this is hope for the best," the judge replied, resignation in his voice. Once again this thin-boned, elderly man was looking for the addicted ex-gangster.

I had written about them two years ago. None of this was a surprise. Michael, a strikingly smart, sensitive man, had been addicted to drugs most of his life. Cocaine drove him to homelessness and by the mid-1990s led to a rap sheet loaded with relatively benign crimes — like the time he got into a car wreck and stole $6 from the other driver.

In 1996, when he was arrested with what was literally a sliver of crack, California's unforgiving three-strikes law kicked in. Convicted of his third felony, Michael received the mandatory sentence: 25 years to life.

His last chance came down to an appeal filed in federal court that landed on the desk of Judge Spencer Letts. Federal judges are inundated with such appeals and almost never reverse convictions. But Letts, then near 70, isn't known for following the pack. In 2004, calling the punishment "cruel and unusual" for such a small amount of drugs, he ordered Michael freed.

The judge did something else too: He asked Michael to meet with him in chambers. Letts wanted to know more about the man he'd pulled from prison. The upshot: Letts became Michael's mentor.

What a bond they formed. White and rich, Letts has the look of a professor emeritus at Harvard. Black and poor, Michael was a former Compton Crip with a barrel chest and a body scarred by bullets. Both got a kick out of their differences, learning a little about life from the other, even after Michael's occasional stumbles.

As their story went to print, Michael, then 42, was about to start working for U-Haul and regularly talked with the judge.

But with addiction there is always doubt. The words at the end of the two-part series reverberated: Nothing will be certain in Michael Banyard's life.

::

His descent started at a bus stop, a few months after the series ran. Michael finished his work shift and planned to head back to the group home in the San Fernando Valley, where he lived.

Instead, he told himself he was doing so well that for one night he should celebrate his victory over addiction. A few minutes later he was heading for skid row and a crack-fueled party that lasted weeks. Just like that he was back living on sidewalks, oddly comforted by the grime and desperation.

"Sad to say," he told me the other day, "but this felt like home.… Home was hell."

Michael resurfaced every so often, showing up at his mother's apartment, calling the judge, vowing to get back on his feet. Then he'd disappear, no one knowing where he was, everyone worried sick.

He ended up in Los Angeles County jail on a vandalism charge. The judge and his assistant, Nancy Webb, came to see him during visiting hours. They tried to encourage him, but he was too embarrassed to listen.

When Michael got out of jail he went back to the group home. One day he decided that if being enslaved by crack was to be his fate then he'd rather commit suicide. So he jammed a fistful of sleeping pills down his throat.

He woke up in a hospital room. Once again, the judge and Webb were at his side. They were there again a few months later, offering their support from the gallery as Michael sat before a Superior Court judge who considered sending him back to prison for violating probation.

Letts had asked a friend — attorney Michael Nasatir — to help make a case that Michael be allowed to remake his life by living at the Dream Center, an evangelical Christian outreach that occupies the old Queen of Angels Hospital campus in Echo Park.

Nearly 700 people live there: students, struggling families, earnest urban missionaries and a large group of parolees and addicts. By the start of last winter, Michael had joined them.

::

In December, I got a letter from Michael.

He wrote: The Judge and Nancy have done the greatest thing they have ever done for me to date. They did not give up, or allow me to give in.... I have been looking forward to the day I could tell you that I am doing well, and today I am doing very well.

In the letter, Michael said the Dream Center focused on simple things: living according to the Gospels, doing good deeds, and love. Now he was helping to build housing for the homeless, handing Christmas presents to impoverished kids and joining work crews that fanned through Echo Park, picking up trash.

Giving to others was diminishing his craving for crack in a way no 12-step program ever had.

Kurt, I don't understand how helping others turned out to be such a great help for me, and has changed me deep down within ... it's like a miracle.

Maybe I'm a fool for redemption, but I want to believe.

When I visited Michael at the Dream Center recently, I was stunned. He beamed with a confidence I'd never seen. His skin glowed, he'd cut off his dreadlocks and, instead of walking with sloped shoulders, his back was straight.

Noting his focus, the center's leadership put Michael in a supervisory role helping to manage work crews. He hopes to stay another year at the center, which operates off donations and doesn't charge its troubled residents a dime. If they'd let him, he just might stay for good.

"I feel alive for the first time in life," he told me, tears in his eyes. "And honestly, if not for the judge I wouldn't be here.... I might be dead.... I don't want to let him down because I care about him so much. He's the father I never had."

Through all of this, the judge could have given up, washed his hands of this addicted ex-con. And Michael could have angrily refused to accept help. But their friendship is a testament to the power of care and forgiveness.

Sitting in his mahogany-lined chambers last week, the judge couldn't stop talking about how thankful he is for this bond.

"Michael has been one of the biggest influences in my life," Letts said. "He was the one who showed me that my gut feeling was right, that people are basically the same, with the same basic goodness if you just give them the chance.... Of course if he stumbles again, I will be there again."

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°