FBI retiree joins march to mentor ex-offenders

June 15, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

I didn't know it at the time -- I didn't ask, and he didn't tell -- but a retired FBI agent, once the supervisor of its narcotics squad in Baltimore, is among the dozens of men and women who volunteered in the past six months to help drug dealers and other ex-offenders find jobs. His name is Jim Ellis, and he buys into our modest, one-on-one effort to pull Baltimore out of its long, dreary heroin-and-cocaine mess.

One man, one woman at a time -- that's how we do it: those already in the mainstream connecting to those who'd like to get there.

Keep this up, and we might see less drug-related violence on city streets one day -- despite what the do-nothing cynics say.

Jim Ellis did not call yesterday to talk about himself. He wanted to report success for two of the three men who contacted The Sun in December and January for help in finding jobs. Two were ex-offenders, one was a teenager hoping to stay off the streets and out of trouble.

Ellis was among the many men and women who volunteered to serve as mentors for adults in these circumstances -- either coming out of prison or trying to get away from the drug scene.

It has been a year since we offered, in this space, to try to connect drug dealers, drug addicts and other ex-offenders with agencies and employers that could help them.

More than 1,400 people have called for assistance since June 9, 2005, and we've hooked several of them up with mentors.

We hooked the mentors up with information on ex-offender services and job leads. We told them they could fashion their mentoring as they wished -- limiting interactions with ex-offenders to phone calls or visiting them at their homes. There were no rules or restrictions -- just my advice to refrain from giving any of them money. We weren't interested in providing handouts.

What we wanted were 100 men and women to help 100 men and women leave the drug life and find jobs to have something like a normal life after prison.

One of those who stepped forward was Jim Ellis.

Turns out, he had a long career with the FBI, in Baltimore and New York, and for a time in the 1980s and 1990s worked in drug investigations. He ran the Baltimore field office's drug squad at a time when crack cocaine had hit the city and the number of homicides escalated.

In the midst of that, Ellis was one of a group of FBI employees who went to a West Baltimore elementary school to mentor children with no male role models in their lives. Once a week for about a year, Ellis visited a fifth-grader who lived with his mother, his sisters and their babies. (The boy's mother and one of his sisters, Ellis recalls, had babies the same age.)

He mentions that experience when I ask why a law enforcement professional, who spent three decades chasing bad guys, might want to lend a hand to adult offenders who've been nothing but a drain on Baltimore for so long. (I tend to assume that most who make a career of law enforcement and criminal justice become jaded early, and for life.)

"I had retired and thought I really should volunteer for something," Ellis said. "It's one person at a time. If we can get just one guy on a path to something better, just one guy, then we've achieved something."

The first person we assigned to Ellis was Marcus Peddiford. "He was 18 or 19, and not an ex-offender, but just a young man hanging out with his brother looking for work," Ellis said. "He seemed not highly motivated, but somewhat motivated. I gave him all the information on agencies and jobs that I thought would be helpful. It took a long, slow time to get him moving, but eventually he did."

Eventually -- about a month ago -- Peddiford found a job at a hardware superstore.

The second person Ellis agreed to mentor was John Lewis, another man who had called The Sun for help. I e-mailed Ellis this information in February: Lewis "has been home from prison since November. He has been in and out of prison several times, mostly on drug-related charges. He has one theft conviction. He says he is no longer using drugs. He likes moving, loading and warehouse work. He is 45 and having a tough time finding a job."

After his first meeting with Lewis, Ellis reported: "Great attitude and some good skills." But he lost touch with Lewis, and he hasn't heard from him since. (John, if you're out there and still need help, please call 410-332-6166.)

The third man Ellis mentored was Damon Lomax.

"I told Damon, like I had told John Lewis, `Don't expect the world at your feet tomorrow,'" Ellis said. "They both had some work experience and some skills. I said, `You're employable, let's find you a job.' I told them, `If anything goes wrong at work -- if a purse is stolen, or something is missing-- you have to be prepared to handle that ... to overcome the stigma" of being an ex-offender.

Ellis passed along information we had given him about ex-offender services in Baltimore. He pointed Lomax toward The Sun's on-line jobs listings. "If anything, that was a way of showing them there are a lot of jobs out there," Ellis said. "Damon really wanted to get back to supporting his family.

"He called me about two weekends ago to say he had found a job [at a supermarket distribution center] and was as happy as can be."

I'm sure Jim Ellis felt pretty good, too.

As the late mentor and wonderful mensch Milton Bates said: "You give, you get."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

To hear Dan Rodricks on the radio, tune in to WBAL (1090 AM) from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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