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October 18, 2009 -- Des Moines Register (IA)

Pardoned By Bush, Iowan Returns To Freedom

By: Grant Schulte

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Reed Prior kneels along the sidewalk with a gallon can, dabs his brush in yellow paint, and slides the bristles over the curb.

Customers breeze out of the Des Moines hardware store, past the "Wet Paint" sign and the 59-year-old who was supposed to die in prison.

Nearly eight months have passed since Prior rejoined the world, drug-free, and hugged his dying father. Eight months since he began the quiet, sober, 9-to-5 life that eluded him for decades.

He remembers his past: A popular over-achiever. An addict who slept in flea-bag motels. A four-time drug felon sentenced to prison for life. And sometimes -- alone, in silence -- Prior thinks about the presidential order that set him free.

Riding High And Crashing

Everyone liked Reed Prior. His friends remember the National Merit Semifinalist, the A-student and sports car mechanic voted "Most Likely to Succeed" at Des Moines' Roosevelt High School.

His senior yearbook shows a skinny, brown-eyed 17-year-old, a bespectacled athlete who golfed and played point guard for an undefeated basketball team. By 1967, the year he graduated, Prior had skipped a grade and logged near-perfect scores on his college entrance exams.

"He's the most knowledgeable person I've ever met," said Richard Margulies, a high school friend and a retired real estate lawyer. "He's so educated and well versed in so many different topics. People use the word 'brilliant' a lot, but that doesn't do justice to the scope and breadth of what he knows."

A radical, rebellious, anything-goes culture greeted Prior in college -- first in Grinnell, then Colorado, then Iowa City. The Vietnam War raged; protesters marched.

He lit his first joint in 1968. Then it was a pill here; a joint there. Mescaline, mushrooms, LSD. Two years later, he discovered white heroin and powder cocaine.

The cocaine lifted him to a pulse-throbbing euphoria. The heroin melted his stress. Together they created a powerful third high -- a pleasure beyond description -- that lasted for hours, days, sometimes weeks.

He left the University of Iowa with a master's degree, and returned to Des Moines to teach. A school budget crisis kept him from full-time work, so he joined three friends in a daring jump: ENCOM Corp., a company they created to sell computer communications equipment.

Business exploded. Prior, the traveling pitchman, jetted the country with enough cash to support his $5,000-a-month habit. By day, he pitched the device to Fortune 500 companies. By himself, he smoked, snorted and swallowed whatever drugs he could.

In 1984, as his work collapsed and heroin use peaked, Prior left EMCOM. His finances crumbled. He bounced from Dallas to California, back to Iowa.

Some nights, he slept in a Ryder truck or a cheap motel. He wandered the streets for a fix. Once he awoke in an ambulance, oblivious to where or who he was. One man shoved a gun into his chest hard enough to leave a bruise.

He began to sell methamphetamine -- a drug he hated, but increasingly used -- from a Des Moines apartment shared with his girlfriend.

The money kept him high. It also left a trail.

A Mandatory Sentence

The police descended quickly. On May 2, 1995, two Des Moines drug enforcement officers spotted Prior's gray Chevy at a south-side motel. They followed Prior from Room 212 to a storage garage rented in his name, and pounced. Inside, they found drug scales, $17,690 in cash and nearly two pounds of methamphetamine.

Federal prosecutors charged him with a drug trafficking felony, punishable by life in prison and an $8 million fine. Three days after his arrest and at his lawyer's urging, Prior pleaded guilty so he could talk early and secure the best plea deal possible.

In the Polk County jail, he slipped into withdrawal. His body ached. His head spun. He felt nauseous, disoriented, lost in a fog as he lay curled on the jail cell floor.

Prior had pleaded guilty to drug felonies in Arizona, California and Des Moines. Each time he was fined, given probation, and turned loose after less than a day in jail.

This charge was different. Congress in 1986 had approved federal "mandatory minimum" sentences designed to snare big-dollar dealers. The law stripped judges of the power to weigh special circumstances, and allowed sentence reductions only if prosecutors asked.

The prosecutor wanted names. If Prior helped their investigation, the prosecutor said he would agree to shorten the life sentence.

No, Prior said. Police had arrested his supplier. All that remained were his customers, mostly recreational users, some with families and jobs. Too many lives lay in ruins.

"I think it's reprehensible that the only way given for me to get out of this life sentence is to become, in the vernacular, a snitch," he told a federal judge. "That is repugnant to me."

The prosecutor at his sentence hearing pointed to advantages the then 45-year-old Prior enjoyed in his youth, his admitted guilt, and his long drug history.

"There's no dispute here that Mr. Prior is an intelligent, analytical, smart person with a lot of good qualities," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lester Paff, according to court records. "The fact of the matter is that he's been convicted three times of three serious drug offenses."

Paul Zoss, his court-appointed lawyer, painted the case as a tragedy driven by drugs. Even with three convictions, he argued, his client had never spent a full day in jail. He had never received treatment. How, he asked, could the court justify a life sentence?

Judge Ronald Longstaff agreed. The sentence, he said, was unjust. But the law was clear.

"You're making me do something I hate doing today, and I'm mad at you for it," Longstaff said. ". . . I'm mad at you because you're making me send you to jail for life, and I don't want to do that."

"Unfortunately, Reed, under the law -- right or wrong -- you're the only person right now who holds the key to unlock the handcuffs that bind me."

The Plea for Help

Bob Holliday was sitting in his West Des Moines law office one morning in 2001, when the phone rang. Don Prior, Holliday's football coach at Roosevelt, spoke with a trembling voice.

"Can you come get me?"

Something was wrong. Five decades after he graduated, Holliday still knew his coach well. Don Prior was an icon to his players, a man who inspired a young Holliday and remained a friend through college and law school.

Holliday pulled into the Prior family driveway. Don Prior walked out of the house, climbed into the car, and fell apart. For six years, he sobbed, his only son -- a drug addict -- had languished in prison.

Holliday stared at his old coach, his hero, his father figure. He was a civil lawyer, with a client list of telephone companies and electric co-ops. He prided himself as a law-and-order conservative, a simple guy who knew little about federal clemency law and nothing about drugs.

"I don't really know what to do here," Holliday said. "But I'll take a look."

Holliday filed a written request to commute Prior's sentence with the U.S. pardon attorney in Washington. And he waited.

Five years passed. No answer. Holliday shared the story with anyone who would listen. He collected support letters from Longstaff, Zoss, and Attorney General Tom Miller. Letters arrived from Prior's high school friends, and ex-governor Robert Ray.

Former Hawkeye coach Hayden Fry, a Bush family friend, added his support. So did Don Nickerson, the former U.S. attorney who green-lighted Prior's sentence.

The odds seemed impossible. President George W. Bush had commuted eight federal prisoners in office.

One morning, Holliday called Iowa First Lady Mari Culver, a friend and fellow lawyer. Did the governor know about Prior's case? Could he help?

Yes, she told him, and he supported Holliday's effort.

And yes, she said. Gov. Chet Culver could arrange a meeting at the White House.

Prison Life

Little remained for Prior but the shouts and echoes in Cell Block 4A, his students, and job at the prison store.

By day, he taught algebra and advanced grammar. He avoided trouble and made no friends. Prisoners at the Greenville FCI, his medium-security home in Illinois, respected him for his life sentence and his refusal to help prosecutors.

One day, after lunch in August 2007, Prior returned to his cell and laid a sheet of paper on a metal desk bolted to the wall. He began to write.

He wrote about his past:

"I wasn't the smartest kid in school, but I was one of them. Often, smart kids are outcasts, but I wasn't. I liked most everyone, and most everyone seemed to like me."

And the drugs:

"This was something I chose, something I did to myself, something that is no one's fault but mine," he wrote. "I didn't really know what was happening until it was too late and I became addicted. I tried again and again to overcome the addiction by myself but I just couldn't."

And his fear for young people:

"Some may get away with it for awhile, for years even. Certainly I did. But the drugs will win in the end -- that's just how it is."

'The system has failed this man' Holliday walked into the White House in December 2008, less than a month before Bush's presidency ended. Zoss, Margulies and Nickerson were with him.

A secretary shuttled the men upstairs, to a second-floor West Wing office. Fred Fielding, the White House counsel, greeted them at the door.

"Mr. Holliday," he said. "I've read every piece of paper you've sent me. And I want you to know that, right now, I think the system has failed this man."

They talked for 45 minutes, huddled around a coffee table in Fielding's cluttered office. Nickerson, the former prosecutor, argued that Prior posed no threat to society. Margulies talked about the family's struggle with Alzheimer's. Zoss, now a federal judge, acknowledged that the case haunted him.

Fielding listened silently, his eyes locked with each man who spoke. Then he asked:

How did they know that, if released, Prior wouldn't tumble back into drugs? How would he support himself? What message would clemency send to law enforcement?

No, they said, Prior had beaten his addiction and stayed clean since 1995. A maintenance job awaited him. No, his release would not undermine the law.

As they left the meeting, Fielding gripped Holiday's arm.

"I want you to know, there's only one person on the face of this earth who can do this: the president of the United States," he said.

Five days later, Holliday's phone rang again.

'Why are you calling me?' Prior was manning the prison store when his name was called over the loudspeaker.

It can wait, he thought.

Minutes later, he heard his name again. Then the store phone rang. A jail staff member answered, paused, and said, "Prior, get back to your unit."

Fear crept into Prior's stomach as he crossed the grassy, sun-splashed prison yard. At Greenville, urgent calls meant trouble: a family death or an accident. His father, sick from Alzheimer's had worsened in recent months.

The prison secretary, usually friendly, seemed tense as she ushered Prior into a small prison office with a telephone. She dialed, but could not connect. Frustrated, she tried again -- still nothing. On the third try, Holliday answered. The secretary turned and left.

Alone in the office, Prior heard Holliday's voice.

"Bob?" he said. "Why are you calling me?"

"Reed," Holliday said. "We got 'er done."

'You Have to Find a Way Through'

Prior lives with his mother, Barb, a retired school district administrator. He golfs at Waveland Golf Course with friends. Margulies hired Prior full time to paint and maintain the business properties he owns in Des Moines.

For the next 10 years, Prior will be on supervised release. He's subject to drug testing at any moment. Every morning, he calls to his parole officer. He cannot leave Iowa's southern judicial district without written permission.

"You're confronted with something, and you have to find a way through it," he said. "I did. I don't know if I can explain it to you any other way."

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