Also read: Josh Beckius was sentenced to prison at sixteen -- but sixteen years later, he has a second chance
By Juliet Wittman
Josh Beckius is in search of redemption. That's a word that comes up regularly when he talks about his life.
At the age of sixteen, Beckius was charged with the murder of Dayton Leslie James, a night-time manager of the Baseline Cinema Savers in Boulder. The crime, which had occurred two years earlier, in 1993, was one of those stupid, vicious, random events that make people question the benevolence of the universe, and it shocked relatively crime-free Boulder. James was a kindly man, a ballroom dancer who had survived an abusive childhood to raise two loving daughters. He had worked with abused children himself and served as a Big Brother, and he was known to let homeless people into the Cinema Savers for free. The movie house was targeted for robbery by a drug-dazed and incoherent gang whose members called themselves — depending on whom you asked — either the Crazy Boy Crips or the Chinie Boy Crips, most of them teenagers, led by Cambodian refugee Chamroen (Charlie) Pa, whose age no one could pin down, but who was thought by police to be in his early twenties. Beckius, then fourteen, ran with the group. During the course of the robbery, which netted around $2,000, Pa shot James twice, in the chest and the back of the head. A welter of confused and often contradictory testimony — a key component of which turned out later to be false — placed Beckius in the cinema with Pa. Colorado's felony murder statute states that if a death occurs during the commission of a crime, anyone involved — whether the driver of a getaway car or someone who once conspired with the perpetrators, even if he later backed out — is guilty of first-degree murder, regardless of intent. Beckius's court-appointed attorney, Patrick H. Furman, was aware that this statute could send the teenager to prison for life with no chance for parole, and he felt that speed was of the essence: Charlie Pa was in custody, and whichever defendant agreed first to a plea would get the better deal. Prosecutor Pete Hofstrom accompanied Furman on his first visit to see Beckius, and the two had already hammered out a deal even though no charges had yet been formalized. After a few days of adamant denial, a highly emotional Beckius pleaded guilty to serving as a lookout for Pa.
Dayton James's daughter, Darcy Priola, was present at the sentencing hearing, and she read the court a letter she had written: "Joshua is heartless for doing what he has done. I know he said he had a bad childhood, but so did my dad, and so have a lot of people.... The crimes which he has committed should be punished for a very long time. As far as I'm concerned, a long time will never be enough time for taking my dad from me."
Beckius was sentenced to forty years and sent to the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, an adult facility. (Pa received a sentence of 48 years.) "I thought prison was going to be my life," Beckius says today. "I was in the mind frame that I was just going to die in there."
Josh Beckius is sitting in a Boulder coffee shop, holding a cup of espresso. He has never tasted espresso before, and he's surprised that the cup is so small and the coffee so bitter. But he likes it. Now 32 years old, Beckius has been given a second chance. He is living at Denver's Peer 1, a residential facility that houses men who have criminal histories and a record of substance abuse. He has a job at a tire company and spends weekends with his family. Grateful to be outside prison walls, Beckius is anxious to experience as many new things as he can.
He sets down his cup. There is no special treatment for juveniles sent to adult prisons, he explains. "It was pretty much, 'You were charged and sentenced as an adult, you were sent here, and you're on your own.' The guards didn't go out of their way to ensure your safety. Some guys that have been locked up fifteen, twenty years kind of explain the ropes. One of the things I was taught by them: Don't let anyone disrespect you. People look at you as pretty much weak and an easy target, and that's one thing that you don't want to put out."
Beckius got into fights. He continued to use drugs. "I just didn't care," he remembers. "I didn't care about myself. I didn't care about my life. For the first four or five years of my incarceration I was constantly in trouble, constantly being sent to segregation for twenty to thirty days...until they pretty much got fed up with me and sent me to CSP."
The Colorado State Penitentiary is a high-tech maximum-security prison, and Beckius spent the next three and a half years in solitary confinement, living in a six-by-eight-foot cell where the light was never turned off, allowed one hour a day to exercise alone in a concrete yard. The prisoners were able to yell to each other through the doors, but Beckius rarely joined the cacophony. He did have books and television, and he could see the outside through a long slit of a window. Most important, there were bi-weekly visits from his father and stepmother, Tim and Kathy Beckius, conducted through a glass partition. In his cell, he watched sports, educational programs and the History and Military channels, wrote letters and a journal, and read the Denver Post every day, "to keep up with what was going on in the world," he says. "It was kind of weird and ironic. But I wanted to be given an opportunity to prove that I belonged back out here, that I'm not just some monster that deserves to be locked away for life."
Experts say that prolonged solitary confinement can cause the disintegration of personality, even full-blown psychosis. Those who visited Beckius during those years remember him as withdrawn and looking haggard and grim. But Beckius says he believes in mind over matter, and he refused to give up: "They'd bring people out of their cells and they'd look like a walking dead man. I didn't want to be that person. Regardless of if I had to do the full forty years in solitary, I wasn't going to be broken."
But the ordeal did change him.
"Being in solitary gave me a lot of time to reflect on my life," he explains. "It was like my rock bottom. I was so ashamed, I was so disgusted. I'd done nothing with the majority of my life, caused havoc and agony and hurt to other people. If I had not had my family and one friend who never gave up on me, who continuously and instantaneously would forgive me for anything when I wouldn't forgive myself...
"That was my breaking point. I made a conscious decision to do everything in my power to change my life, and not to hurt people who cared about me." Released into the general population at Fremont Correctional Facility in 2001 — a difficult and nerve-racking transition in itself — Beckius began availing himself of every opportunity the prison offered. He had already received his GED in 1998, and now he signed up for courses taught through Naropa University, Northeastern Junior College and Adams State: English, algebra, psychology, public speaking, principles of advertising, financial mathematics, basic anatomy. He ended up halfway to an associate's degree, with a GPA of 3.81. And when he was sent to the Sterling Correctional Facility in 2008, he joined the Therapeutic Community, a group-based rehabilitation program, and worked in it for two years, eventually serving as a mentor for other prisoners.
"He put himself in a position to begin his lifestyle change," says Ken Gaipa, director of Peer 1. "That's hard to do in prison: You're regarded as a traitor."
Nothing in Beckius's early life would seem to have equipped him to survive his time in solitary confinement mentally intact, much less to emerge and rebuild a life for himself. His mother, Patricia Joyce Beckius, was an alcoholic whose family was involved with drug dealing. "My father gave her an ultimatum: 'Look, we have a son. You need to choose between partying and being a mom,'" Beckius says. "My mom chose the party scene and the drinking in bars, and they separated." Patricia Beckius was killed by a motorist on North Federal Boulevard one night after leaving a bar. It was two days before Beckius's fifth birthday.
He has only hazy memories of her: a faint image of dark hair, a sense of her presence. Even looking at photographs brings up nothing more specific. "I used to be angry with her in my young years, into my teens, bitter and upset," he says. "Now I don't blame her just because of the things I've been through, the addiction and wanting to party. Now I can almost empathize with the way she was living her life." After Patricia's death, Tim Beckius took his son to live with him and his then-girlfriend, Melanie Tope, in Jamestown. Josh Beckius remembers the next three or four years as idyllic, and wrote about their home together for a prison creative-writing class in an essay he called "Home Sweet Home." "Surrounded by aspens, pines, and huge cottonwood trees, it was like my own little fortress," he wrote. He described sitting on the porch for hours on end listening to the creek and watching "raccoons, squirrels, and a great variety of different birds." Summers were spent fishing and adventuring in the mountains, winter "was more about being with family — sitting inside where a fire kept the place warm and looking outside to enjoy the mystical whiteness of winter...loved ones pulling together to get through the tough times winter can cause, such as cutting wood for the fireplace, hauling wood up to the house, and making sure everything was in place to make it a safe and warm winter." He concluded by wishing he could "step up to that front porch...once again." But then Tim Beckius and Melanie split up. It was only when he was nine and living with his father in Gunbarrel that Beckius learned what had happened to the woman he considered a second mother. He was flipping through a photo album and he came across several newspaper articles: Tope had been murdered by the man she was living with. "I was home after school," he says. "Dad wasn't around. I broke down in tears. It was a gruesome, gruesome scene." Beckius began running wild, and Tim lost control of him. At ten or eleven, he was hanging out with cousins on his mother's side, drinking and smoking pot. Although he was athletic and played with the North Boulder Little League, he was rarely at school. He attacked a classmate who'd insulted his mother. He stole a stereo from his family.
He was fourteen when he met Charlie Pa and his friends at a party. "They resembled everything I liked about my mom's side of the family," he remembers. "They were older than me, but they treated me like an equal, as a friend. Gave me drugs. Gave me keys to a car and let me drive. It was like I was leading a double life, still trying to maintain this all-star athletic persona. I chose the negative. I just drifted. It was almost like a natural thing to do."
During his entire time in prison, Beckius fought for his freedom. While still in solitary, he had found a new attorney, Neil Silver, who crafted an appeal to have his plea set aside on the basis of inadequate representation so that he could get a new trial. The court decided against him.
In August 2007, in the wake of an influential Frontline special titled "When Kids Get Life" and stories in the local and national press (including Westword), Governor Bill Ritter established a juvenile clemency board to consider the cases of people sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed in their teens; legislators had already decided to limit such sentences to forty years — a decision that was not retroactive. Beckius put his case before Ritter's board and was turned down. (The board never granted clemency to any inmate.) And last December, Beckius lost his first bid for parole.
But his work with the Therapeutic Community in Sterling had made Beckius eligible for transfer to one of the organization's residential treatment centers. Peer 1 staff members, including director Gaipa, visited him in prison to test his motivation, and late last year the transfer was approved by the Denver Community Corrections Board. Like those in halfway houses and other community facilities, Peer 1 residents remain under the control of the Department of Corrections.
Beckius remembers the day when he was called into the prison office and told of his acceptance at Peer 1 as an emotional roller coaster. "There was a lot of emotion, a lot of relief," he says. But two hours later, someone came to his cell door to inform him there had been a mistake. Two hours after that, he was back in the office and being told that the mistake was a mistake: "They'd found the paperwork, and I was accepted," he remembers. "November 3, they told me to pack up my stuff and take it to Property. It kind of made me sick to my stomach. Almost like, this isn't real. Something bad's gonna happen, there's gonna be another mistake. But the next morning I got on the big bus, the gates opened up, and I looked back and realized that's been a part of my life for almost sixteen years, and today's a new day. It was a two-hour bus ride, and I couldn't even begin to tell you how that felt. I thought about the endless possibilities. I just kept thinking to myself, I have the chance. I've been given an opportunity to have my life back, and that was the most...I don't know how to put it into words. While you're inside, all you think about is, 'I wish I was out. I wish I was working, I wish I could be with my family. I wish I could look up at the mountains.' Simple things — hear a river, hear the birds chirp, walk down the street in the middle of the night. Just walk out wherever you're at and realize you're not surrounded by prison bars and razor wire and metal and concrete, guards. You don't have to look over your shoulder and worry about...anything."
He was amazed by the atmosphere at Peer 1, delighted in the verdant grounds and Victorian buildings. But just being on the outside can be tricky. At first, Beckius says, "you want to be able to be observant of everything around you, sit with your back against a wall, make sure people are in sight or in your peripheral vision. To have been lonely, depressed, kept from any kind of human contact and then get thrown in with a bunch of people, it's almost like a culture shock."
Going home from work one night, he realized that the new school semester had started at the Auraria campus, and the light-rail train was packed with "people sitting and standing on top of each other," he recalls. "I didn't get the feeling of claustrophobia in solitary like I did those first times on the light rail. Now it doesn't bother me, though."
The concept of Therapeutic Community is national and has been around for forty years; Peer 1 is one of several facilities both inside and outside prisons connected with the Colorado Department of Corrections. TC places a strong emphasis on both self-help and peer influence. The treatment is confrontational and very intensive, and the entire group can be punished if one resident breaks the rules: punishments include writing a paper and reading it to the group, being given a curfew, standing or sitting for a period of time alone, or missing a scheduled camping trip, Rockies game or trip to the Buell Theater for a musical. "There are consequences if you fall asleep in group or leave a coffee cup on the table," director Gaipa says. "The location where you lived before was probably filthy. Here you clean up after yourself. We check how you walk. How you look at someone else. We check for jailhouse behavior, intimidation. It's like living in a fish bowl, with eyes and ears on you all the time.
"This is a group that's been highly manipulative," he adds, "and we are holding people accountable. Prisons are run by drugs, sex, violence, rape and intimidation, gambling. That constitutes the total frame of reference. You don't look at your emotions there. You have a criminal mask. We break through that mask."
Tom Brewster, executive director of Addiction Research and Treatment Services at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-founder of the umbrella organization for Peer 1, Signal Behavioral Health Network, adds, "They've been institutionalized, and they're now in an environment that's fluid and ever-changing. They have to make decisions when they've never had a chance to do that before. It takes a place like this to re-shape and re-parent them, to help them deal with freedom and eventually find jobs, work, pay taxes and become good citizens."
Residents work on projects intended as a way of making amends for their crimes and giving back to the community. They go on AIDS walks, work with Habitat for Humanity and put together food baskets. "We have a choir that visits nursing homes," Gaipa says. "And every month we pass the hat and make a donation to Save the Children."
Beckius has completed one year of his two-year stay. He will soon move to a house on the Peer 1 grounds with some twenty other residents for approximately ninety days. After that, he will be allowed to rent his own place, living under supervision and wearing an ankle bracelet. He comes up for parole in 2013. Whether he makes parole or not, he'll continue his work with Peer 1. Any slip could send him back to prison to serve the entire length of his sentence — which means he would not be released until he's well into his fifties. The daily schedule is strict. Every morning, Beckius gets up at 3:30 a.m. and takes an almost two-hour bus ride to his job. Almost every evening, he participates in Peer 1 programs. After that, he helps the other residents clean up the house and prepares for the next day.
Despite the tightrope he still has to walk, Beckius appears steady and cheerful, grateful even for the restrictions. And he swears he'll do well with the chance he's been given. "Every day that I live my life is a day of redemption for me," he says. "I've done so much horrible stuff and created so many victims and the ripple effect of treating everyone around me like they didn't exist or they didn't matter. Today that's not the case. I'm ashamed and embarrassed for the way I've lived my life. It hurts me that I've created so much hurt, and I refuse to do that. I have the opportunity to be out here, to make amends for all the wrongs that I've done and prove people wrong — that a hopeless individual can become a person that other people are proud to know."
Ex-convicts are famous for manipulating the truth, but several people who understand a few things about corrections are optimistic about Josh Beckius. One is former state legislator Don Marostica, who visited several prisons as part of his duties when he was a member of the Joint Budget Committee. He had heard about Beckius, and asked to meet him during a visit to Sterling; he ended up speaking on Beckius's behalf to the clemency board. "I felt good about the kid," he says. "Everybody gets bad breaks in life. I grew up as a tough kid; I was one of the bullies. In junior high, I ran the school." He laughs. "I've been fooled before, but I had a pretty good gut reaction about him."
"It's a case that has stayed on my mind," says attorney Neil Silver. "I do think he is one of those people who were let down by the system. Hopefully he's not holding it against the system, and at this point, it appears that the system is doing what it can to help him get his life together."
"He impressed us," comments Gaipa. "He wanted something different. He made a commitment somewhere."
"He's got empathy," agrees Brewster, "and concern for others. These are innate strengths." Beckius carries the hopes of many on his shoulders, among them his devoted grandparents and Tim and Kathy. But perhaps most important, Dayton James's daughter Darcy Priola follows his progress. Priola eventually wrote a second letter about the case — this time to the parole board. The wording was carefully balanced and almost neutral, but the thrust was clear: Despite their misgivings, she and her sister, Daytona Ferry, were in favor of parole. "I don't know him, of course," she says now of Beckius, "but my gut feeling is that if he's going to be able to live in society around the rest of us, now is a good time for him to get out. He still has a chance to have his own family. I know it's weird to say, but I do feel like he's done well with what he's been given. He could have ended up getting in a lot of trouble in prison, but he learned to stay away from it. He figured it out. He could have kept going down that path very easily.
"I have a fourteen-year-old now, so I can see that, wow — he was really young when it happened."
Is what she feels forgiveness?
"I don't know if I've thought of saying 'I forgive you,'" she responds slowly. "He's never asked or anything like that. I don't know if I'm wrong, but I just feel he's not a bad person. He was young and got hung up with a really bad crowd. I guess forgiveness...I've never thought of actually using that word for it. I don't know. That's a hard one.
"But he deserves a chance to prove himself. It seems like he's done things to better himself. And I hope I'm right. I think it would be great if he could come out and work for troubled teens."
Over a decade ago, in a Boulder County courtroom, Beckius sat pressed against the back of a chair as he was questioned at a hearing to set aside his plea ("This Boy's Life," March 23, 2000). He looked as if he wanted to get as far away from the proceedings as possible, and his answers were flat and monosyllabic — though his father noticed his chin quivering once or twice. Now he finishes his coffee, grins and puts down the cup. In the past year, he's gone skiing for the first time in almost two decades, grown to like Chinese food and visited his first Starbucks, where the caffeine and sugar in his caramel frappuccino made him dizzy. He has a lot of years to make up for, and in some ways, notes his stepmother, he's still a kid, despite everything he's seen and been through: "Sometimes when he sees something, thinks about getting an apartment or driving a car, he gets so excited it's like he's sixteen."
"I always tell people if prison was inevitable in my life, I'm glad that it happened when it did," Beckius says. "Not only did it give me the rest of my life to live, but if it wasn't for those experiences, I don't think I would be the person that I am today. And I like who I am today."