Chapter 20 In the Jailhouse Now

Vector illustration of a man in jail

From my book Unscrewed: Becoming Whole Again. My personal story of abuse, shame, guilt, addiction, failure, rehab, jail and victory.

Friday afternoon December 16, 2005 I had just stepped off the elevator at Baptist Hospital on my way to ICU to check on Alexia, the daughter of one of our members who was in a coma and near death when my cell rang.  It was David Raybin, my attorney, who was representing me in what he called “The Great Church Mess”. “John I hate to spoil your day but your friends are on their way to the DA’s office to get you a Christmas present. They are determined to swear out a warrant for your arrest. They have no grounds, but we have to follow the procedure.  I suggest that you go by Capitol City Bonding and have Mary accompany you to the Criminal Justice Center to turn yourself in.  I’ll call her and give her a heads up. That way you won’t risk embarrassment of being picked up at home. You will be out in a couple of hours, you’ll have it behind you and it will be quite an experience. You might get some good stuff for a sermon”. Actually, I felt relief. For over three months Dave had been threatening to have me arrested on a trumped up charge unless I bowed to him. Every time I saw a police car in my neighborhood I had visions of them leading me out the front door of my house in cuffs and everybody in our cul-de-sac looking on. Dave had what he described as a “Countdown Calendar”.  On several occasions since the events of September 6, he had threaten me with arrest by saying things like, “I still have 340 days that I can have you arrested. All I have to do is call the cops”.  At first the threats scared me to death because he is the most tenacious and unrelenting person I have ever known. His tenacity had served him well and was one of the reasons for our success at Highland Park Church.  In fact it was one of his character qualities that I had admired greatly.  But when he used it for bad it was something very frightening.

I had recently learned that somebody had sent a series of threatening emails to another pastor in the neighborhood (1). The emails were sent under the assumed name of “Darren Liff” essentially threatening the pastor with disruption of his Sunday service. At his wits end the pastor had shown them to his friend, Martin Ameroa , who had done some graphic design for us at HPC and had also traveled to Chicago with Dave and me for a conference a few years earlier. Martin somehow traced the threatening emails back to the Robinson Insurance Agency static IP Address (2). Because of Martin’s business and personal relationship with Dave, the pastor did not involve the police. However, he did send Dave an email saying “If you have something to say I’ll be glad to meet with you face to face”. The pastor got no reply nor any more threatening emails.   It is mystifying how you can think you know someone so well, but then you see a brand new side.  That paradox is basic to our human condition. The first time Dave threatened to have me arrested he involved my 89 year old mother into his threat by pointing out how my arrest would affect her. I just looked at him and shook my head.  I had also learned through a mutual friend that he had attempted several weeks earlier to have me arrested, but the DA, who had a child on Dave’s softball team, would not issue the warrant and referred the matter to mediation.  She saw it for what it was when she termed it a “church split” which was exactly what it was all about.

When Dave and his dad took control of the church while I was away at Sierra Tucson, Dave had told Lou Alvarez that only “ten people or so would leave the church”. When their plan started to go south and the truth came out over 300 people left.  Perhaps that fired up their “Let’s have John arrested” juices.  After my attorney’s call I felt like a huge burden had been lifted off my shoulders. At least my old friend Dave would no longer be able to threaten me with a ride in the backseat of a police cruiser. I chalked that up as a “W” in my column.  I also naively thought the end of this nightmare was finally within sight. It was Friday night; the jails would be full so I figured they would not waste much time with me.  I continued to ICU and prayed with Alexia’s family, picked up Cathy and we headed to the “seedy side of town” to seek the services of Capitol City Bonding. Somehow God had taken all the fear and embarrassment of what was happening away. I felt like David from the Old Testament, “Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies.” Psalms 23:4-5 (NLT).

Mary was expecting us. She told me I was not her typical customer. I thanked her for the compliment. Mary explained what would happen at the jail. She expected that the whole process would take between two and three hours and that I would actually be in a cell for less than an hour. The rest of the time would be waiting, fingerprinting and having my mug shot taken. Speaking of the mug shot,  Dave’s dad George was kind enough to email it to me many months  later in one of his  ”Moon Mails” with the following note.  “Attached is a classic picture from days gone by. It should evoke some special memories.  We’ve had a sterling time with it.”(2) It is in the appendix. Be forewarned it is scary. I signed all the bail bond forms, Mary gave Cathy her business card and the three of us walked the four blocks to the CJC on a raw December night. While we were walking over, I asked her if she ever had any famous clients. She told me that she was Adam “Pacman” Jones’ personal bondswoman. I never in a million years expected to have anything in common with Pac!   Mary did tell me that he is really a “good guy”.  When we got to the jail we learned that there was no warrant. The clerk speculated that the warrant would not come down until Monday because the warrant office closed early on Friday.  I was extremely disappointed. I would not be arrested that night.  I would have to wait another three days. I did not like that idea, but we made the best of it by going to dinner at Outback.


Monday December 19, as I was leaving a meeting at the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office, Mary called. The warrant had arrived. She had told the clerk that I would be in later in the afternoon to surrender. I picked up Cathy and we went to lunch at McDonald’s on Hillsboro Road. While we were eating Parker Sherrill called; when I told him I was I was on my way to jail, and had stopped at McDonald’s, Parker started roaring with laughter about me choosing a “Big Mac as my last meal”.  He got me tickled to the point that my Diet Coke came out through my nose. For some reason when logic told me I should be terrified, we were all laughing under the Golden Arches!  Perhaps God was laughing too. His Word says, “The wicked plot against the godly; they snarl at them in defiance. But the Lord just laughs…” Psalms 37:12-13 (NLT) God is not necessarily logical, but He is always working in our lives if we will just pause in the moment to feel Him and let Him love and guide us. He has shown Himself to be the “Big G God” time after time in my life and this was another example of His unending protection.   We parked at Mary’s office and again the three of us walked back over to the CJC arriving shortly after 2 PM. This time all the paperwork was in order. Mary explained to Cathy and I that I would be released between 5 and 6, and that she would come back over with her for my release.

I gave Cathy my watch, wallet, and college ring. Cathy and Mary then left the building.  I recall feeling very lonely, but still without fear. I thought “This cannot be real” and then a sense of profound sadness enveloped me. The very best friend I had ever had, whom I still loved greatly, was having me arrested without cause, as the court would conclude in four months.  So very sad! I walked into the booking room; a sergeant came over and told me to have a seat and relax. He also said they did not get many preachers. He then recalled that several years ago he did book a preacher for murder. One of the most interesting afternoons of my life was just beginning. I did not have to wait long. The door opened and two officers escorted a handcuffed gentleman who was claiming it was all a “big mistake”.  Nobody I met in jail that day was “guilty” including me! They sat him down and walked away to confer with the sergeant. The guy looked at me and wanted to know why I was there. I told him it was a long story, but the bottom line it was part of a church split. He knew “about those” and proceeded to tell me about his “old lady’s” church splitting. Then he started yelling that it was all a big mistake and he was innocent. I asked him what was going on; why was he there?  I found out during the Church Mess that real life is much stranger than fiction. You just cannot make this stuff up. My new friend’s name was Mr. Peanut and he did have a striking resemblance to the Planter’s man. That very morning Mr. Peanut had been released from the Tennessee State Prison after serving time for robbery. He had been out of prison less than six hours and here he sat in handcuffs in the booking room. Soon I realized that the focus of my sadness had suddenly shifted from me to Mr. Peanut. I wondered what in the world was going on with him that would prevent him from staying out of trouble for even a day? Could he not stay out of jail for one single day? Peanut was stopped for a traffic violation. Since he did not have a valid license the police ran a check on him and found an outstanding warrant for “failure to appear” that was several years old.  I asked him what that meant and he explained that when he was in jail that he had missed a court appearance on another traffic charge, so a warrant was issued for him failing to appear. He said, “Hell, preacher I could not go to court if I was already in jail could I?”  It seemed to me that he had a valid point. He was very vocal about his innocence and several times the officers told him to calm down. Suddenly, he screamed, “This ain’t _______ right. Why am I in cuffs and this guy (that would be me) is just sitting here as pretty as he pleases?” One of the officers replied, “Do you want me to cuff him?” The officer’s question sent a chill down my spine. Mr. Peanut replied, “No”.  With that Peanut and I had bonded a bit like blood brothers. Before long the jailer came and took Mr. Peanut away. We wished each other luck. Our paths would cross again.

About 3:15 Sergeant Williams asked me to come over to his desk so he could do the paperwork on me. As he entered the information into the computer, we talked about the arrest warrant and our churches. I learned that he was very active in his. Right there in the booking room we talked about the possibility of the two churches joining together in some type of outreach. Unfortunately that has not worked out. It was obvious to me that God had put him in my path that day; my booking was nothing like I see on “Cops”!  After we finished he walked with me back to the actual jail area where I was fingerprinted and had my picture taken. Thank God I was not required to hold up a number! I found the entire process both humbling and extremely interesting. When we were finished with that I was told to sit in the hallway and enjoy the “show”.  I soon realized that I had a front row seat for real life “Cops”.  I heard loud talking, then suddenly the door banged open and a Metro Policeman pushed in a guy who was three sheets to the wind. He was cussing and screaming to beat the band. I must have sat there nearly an hour watching a steady parade of prisoners being brought in handcuffs. It was quite the show. Surprising to me it seemed that everybody knew everybody!


Sergeant Williams came over to inform me that he would have to put me in a cell shortly; he told me what to expect.  As we talked I made the comment that I was grateful for the way I had been treated. He said, “Pastor it is because this is your first visit. The others you see here have been here so many times we know them. It is like a revolving door, but that is the system we have”. I asked him how many of his regular customers had grown up with a mom and dad in the home. “Very few — this is the only life they know.”  Just before five he came back and asked me if I was ready to really see the rest of the jail.  “Yes I am”.  As we walked toward a remotely operated door he explained that I would be in a cell with five other men. The door to the pod opened; as Sergeant Williams stood at the door I slowly walked down the cellblock to an open cell door on the left. It was like being in the twilight zone. No sooner had I cleared the doorway than I heard the sound of steel banging shut behind me. For a split second I was terrified —- until I recognized a familiar face. There was Mr. Peanut! I do not think I have ever been as glad to see somebody in my life. “Welcome to Metro’s finest” he said. Again I saw God’s mighty hand at work.   Standing in that cell with four pair of eyes staring at me, was frankly beyond the twilight zone. It was off the charts!  There were actually five other guys in the cell; however, one was passed out under a bunk.  I sat down on a bunk next to Peanut. A man across from us was bitching because he had been arrested; he said “without probable cause”. He had been pulled over on Ellington Parkway. A search of his automobile turned up a loaded pistol and a bag of crack. He had recently been released from prison after serving time for attempted murder. He was now out on parole. He openly admitted to me that he was guilty, but insisted that his constitutional rights had been violated because he was stopped without probable cause. According to him the whole thing was “A crock of _______ because I was a victim of those mother ______ cops profiling me”. Of course I agreed with him! About that time I heard a racket from under the bunk where the guy was passed out. He crawled out on all fours and vomited all over the place. It was quite the sight and sound! I flashed back to my party days at The University of Tennessee. I silently asked, “God are you still here”? I was pretty sure he was.

Peanut started screaming for the guard to come. Soon the door opened; a trustee with a mop bucket and a garbage mouth entered to clean up the mess. Before he had finished up, the supper cart rolled up with the night’s entrée — two plain baloney sandwiches on white bread and one of those drink boxes of Kool Aide – no chips and no cookie.  I passed on the grub. At that point in time, I do not think I could have eaten one of those if my life depended on it. The door opened again and now there were seven. Like the rest of us he was innocent too. Somebody “set him up”. He did not know the crack was in his car. As I sat there nearly in a trance, I noticed that there was a phone on the wall. A telephone right there in the cell! I asked Peanut what the phone was for. He replied, “So you can call out of this mother ______ hell-hole, but you gotta call collect.” I picked the phone up and called Cathy to make sure she had not forgotten about me. It was surreal. I was making a collect call to my wife from jail!  Her voice never sounded so good.  She told me that Mary had called and told her to be back to CJC around 5:50.  She was going to park at the bonding company and Mary was going to walk with her to meet me upon my release.  As soon as I got off the phone, Mr. Peanut whispered, “Preacher can you please call your wife back and asked her to call my daddy to come down here and bail me out.” Of course I did not mind; Mr. Peanut and I were jail bird buds. Things had gotten somewhat quiet in the cell and I thought that the new guy looked familiar. I knew him from someplace. He seemed like he was eyeing me too. I hoped that was the reason for his attention.  So I asked him, “Where do I know you from”?  He replied that he was thinking the same thing about me. He asked me if I had done time in the pen or did I ever frequent a bunch of places I never heard of.   Finally I asked him if he had ever attended Highland Park Church. He had not. Then he said, “Dude you are the cool preacher; you used to come to the Mission on Thursday nights. What are you doing here? This ain’t right!” I agreed!  It is a small world. I had in fact spoken at the Mission many times. Fifty minutes after the door had slammed behind me it opened again; my named was called. I was a once again a free man. On the way home I asked Cathy if she had called Mr. Peanut’s dad.  She had.  His reply to her was, “Tell that SOB to never call me again”.  How sad!   That afternoon was one I never want to repeat, but it is one I would not take anything for the experience.

Coming up next. My “Trial” and what Judge John Brown had to say in open court.

Complete beta version of my book  for free Unscrewed: Becoming Whole Again. My personal story of abuse, shame, guilt, addiction, failure,rehab and victory.

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