Cash can't fix 10 years stolen from growing up

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 01, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The calendar says Leslie Vass is 36 now. It's a lie. He is suspended at 17, his age when the state of Maryland put him in prison on a false charge and kept him there for a decade while Vass kept screaming about a terrible mistake.

Once an inmate, always an innocent. In 1984, a decade after putting him away, the state apologized and began giving him $250,000 in installments. It sounded like a lot of money at the time. But nobody ever taught Leslie Vass how to spend it, or save it, or conduct a life outside of prison.

And last week, Vass and two of his children showed up at a shelter for the homeless in Reisterstown and had to ask for a place to stay.

"This is Jamal," he said Tuesday morning, patting his 4-year-old son's head. "And this is Alisha." She is 2. He holds her in his big hands and gently cuddles her close.

There is an outward gentleness about Leslie Vass that belies his miserable history. Go back 19 years. Vass, a student at Southern High, never in trouble, walks out of the Westport Pharmacy and is accused of pulling an armed holdup.

"Not me," says Vass. Nobody listens. The system puts him away, sends him from one prison to another, ignores cries from Vass that he's innocent. Ten years go by.

Finally, an investigator in the Baltimore public defender's office takes a photo of another fellow to the delivery man who made the original charge.

"What's he doing out of jail?" the delivery man says.

"This is not the man you identified in court," he is told.

"Oh, my God," says the delivery man, and then apologizes to everyone he can find, until Vass is finally released from prison.

The state of Maryland tries to make amends. How do you put a price on 10 years of somebody's youth? Somehow, they arrive at a $250,000 figure, spread over eight years, enough to help Vass get a running start.

The money's all gone now. Gone where, Leslie Vass isn't entirely sure, but he got the last payment in November, for $28,000, and five months later his pockets are empty.

And, as he sits here on Reisterstown Road, down the street from the homeless shelter, pieces begin falling into place: of a young man who made mistakes since his release, definitely; a man who raced through the last eight years trying to make up for lost time and instead lost his way, absolutely.

But a man, also, who was completely unequipped to enter the world, and whose sudden flash of money was seized upon by people thinking of everyone but Vass.

There are five children in all. There are three from Vass' wife, who is now living with the kids at her mother's apartment. There are the two little ones here, born to a girlfriend who took off for parts unknown.

"There were a lot of gold seekers," Vass says, people who latched on for a while, got what they could, then fled. There were 17 cars in eight years, the mark of a man suspended in adolescence, frantic to capture pleasures once denied.

"I bought a used BMW for $9,000," he says softly, "but it didn't leave me with any money. So I sold it back 30 days later, for $2,000. And then I saw it on the lot a few days later, selling for almost $9,000."

He says he spent lots of money on family members, lots more on people he thought were his friends. Got a nice townhouse, went to the Cross Street Market regularly and bought hundreds of dollars of food at a time. Spent lavishly on his kids. Bought a brand-new living-room set, heard about a friend who didn't have furniture, and so he bought the friend a living-room set. Went food shopping for others and paid the bills.

Never, he stresses, turned to drugs or other crime. "It would be like saying they were right to put me in prison," he says.

Never knew about buying on credit, about writing checks, about budgeting. Was there nothing he learned in prison? "Yeah," he says softly. "I learned how to go into the yard at 1 o'clock every afternoon."

He had a few jobs -- janitor, gas station mechanic -- but couldn't hold them. Went for other jobs, got turned away by employers edgy about the 10 years in prison.

Says he wants to work with troubled kids. It's a match. The calendar says Leslie Vass is 36, but it's a lie. Those years in prison left him suspended in his own youth, and even $250,000 couldn't save him from that.

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