LOST AND FOUND: A STORY OF HOPE
By Erik Janz Tranum
February 19, 2014
I remember the lights on the police car shining directly at me when I climbed out of the creek and up onto the parking lot of the trailer park. An officer was there, and after looking at me, he asked “what is on your shirt?” I looked down at my shirt and it was covered in red. I responded “it’s ketchup.” He arrested me.
They put me in a small cell at the police department. I was still very drunk and high. I was alone. I could hear voices but saw no one. There was a window on one wall of the holding cell that looked out onto a hallway. I kept yelling out to whoever could hear me “why am I here?” After what seemed to be a long time an officer arrived at the window and said they were still waiting to find out. I was completely confused by that statement. How could they arrest me if they didn’t know why and what did waiting have to do with anything?
They brought me into an office room and began interrogating me. I had no answers for their questions. One officer played the jerk and another played the nice guy. Just like the movies. I was learning more about what I had been involved in from them than I could have given to them. They told me I was arrested for homicide.
After being questioned for hours they gave up and put me back in the holding cell. I was there all night. In the morning I was picked up and transferred to juvenile hall. They took my clothes, made me shower and gave me the clothes typical for the maximum security unit of the Hall. Then I was escorted to the unit. I was surrounded by concrete walls and ceiling. It seemed like it was underground because there were no windows. Finally I was placed into a cell and the door was locked.
When I finally sobered up the reality of what was happening began to impact me. I still believed I would not have to stay very long. I immediately got comfortable by finding things to do. I exercised, played basketball, read books. The other kids on the unit seemed distant from one another. Some hung together in what seemed to be racial and gang groups. I just wanted to do my thing and get out.
I stayed at the Hall for nine months. Every day was the same. Every now and then my public defender would call me out and we would talk about the case. I had the same answers for her that I did for the cops. Nada. I was not guilty of anything. After several meetings she told me the court was willing to offer me a plea bargain. I didn’t accept the charge of voluntary manslaughter or the time connected to it, eleven years at 85 percent. She told me if I fought the case I would lose and get more time, maybe even a life sentence. Actually, at one point they were even considering the death penalty from what I heard. I was hopeless. The system had swallowed me up and I had no power to fight it. I reluctantly agreed to plea no contest to voluntary manslaughter as well as robbery (a different case from months before the latest one). I was stuck.
It took about a year for the reality of how long I was actually going to have to stay in prison to set in. Once it did I became very depressed.
While inside juvenile hall I made pruno but was transferred before I had a chance to try some. I heard later that everyone who drank it got sick. Funny. Glad I didn’t partake. I was the only one on the unit who had access to the stuff to make the drink and the only one with clearance to get into places I could hide it while it settled. I was sort of proud of myself to have been able to do everything it took to make that happen. It took a lot of timing and sneakiness.
There was another guy on the unit who was able to sneak in crank. I tried it a couple times. All it made me do was play ping pong, lift weights, and play basketball nonstop. When it was time to eat I wasn’t hungry. I knew if I didn’t eat it would become obvious to the staff I was on something. So, I ate the chili dog on my tray. The problem was I was tweaking so hard I couldn’t stop moving fast and ate the thing in like three bites. I don’t think I even chewed. I inhaled the thing. Everyone at my table was watching me, dumbfounded.
There were only two fights on the unit that I remember. One was between the northern and southern Mexican gangs. The other was between two black kids. That last fight got the staff really curious about me. I was on the basketball court when it happened. I was about to throw up a shot when all of a sudden I felt a person leaning on my right shoulder. I looked and it was this black kid. I didn’t move. He slowly slid down my side and lay on the ground. He had been punched and knocked out right next to me and landed on my side. I looked down at him on the ground for about three seconds. Then I shot my basketball. Wasn’t my business. The staff locked the unit down and I was one of the kids they questioned. I had no answers. They were shocked by how callous I was to the situation. They didn’t know what it was like where I grew up. Even by sixteen years old I was numb to pretty much anything. My life was what outsiders would consider very dark. I didn’t try to be cold, it was a survival instinct. Most people would find they can get that way in given circumstances.
Eventually I was transferred to youth authority (prison for kids). When I arrived I was treated the same way I was at the Hall. They took my clothes, made me shower, and gave me their clothing. I was escorted to a unit. While walking to the unit I passed a black kid doing some kind of work on the yard facility. He asked me who I ran with (what gang). I told him I did my own thing. He told me I better get with some gang or I wouldn’t survive. That probably was the only conversation that would have ever made me consider the option. I was a pretty tough kid with no thought to dying by my own set of rules. But to have a kid from another race tell me to click up shocked me. He basically was telling me I better join his enemies. Well, when I arrived on the unit the white boys approached me and asked me if I was with them. I said yes.
I learned quickly that these kids I joined were a philosophical bunch of knuckleheads. They were not just together because of race, but they hated everyone else. They were white supremacists. I grew up in the Bay Area, particularly Richmond. I was the minority there and learned to adapt to survive. Now I was in this prison environment and was learning how to survive there. Already it involved changing things about myself that were very difficult to change. I didn’t hate anyone because of their race. That was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. How could you judge someone you had never met? It seemed retarded. I did my best to adapt. I guess on the outside I began to look and act like them. Eventually they convinced me. I was brainwashed.
One day a black gang member started rapping at his table on the unit while playing chess with another member of his gang. I remember he was a Blood. His rap got racist and he was throwing around all this crap about white people. One of the guys at our table told him that we all had our feelings about one another but that he should keep that stuff to himself. Everybody got quiet. They kept playing chess and after about a minute this black kid starts rapping again and guess what he was saying? The same racist crap he was told to be quiet about. All of a sudden our guy stands up. Then I stand up. Then all our guys stand up. Then all his guys stand up. We all just stood. Quiet. The tension was tangible. I felt a punch to the back of my head. That just made me mad. I immediately decided that the first black kid I saw when I turned around was getting lit up. Sure enough there was one and I went at him like a psychopath. He got busted up quick and that wasn’t good for his team. The Bloods and Crips then decided to join forces on the unit and about seven of them jumped me. I sort of bobbed and weaved as best as I could and got some punches in where I saw an opening. However, the numbers were against me. I ended up slowly going down to my hands and knees while they all pummeled me with punches and kicks. I began to think that if I let them get me all the way down that they would kill me. My instincts and adrenaline kicked in and I slowly fought my way back to my feet. After that one of the unit officers put a can of pepper spray right onto my eyes. It was game over after that. The staff got all of us on the ground. I ended up with a chipped tooth. That was it. Later on the unit officers showed me their report and said they had never seen anything like what I had done. Apparently I blacked out and worked my way around the whole rec room lighting up guys left and right until the cops took me down. Didn’t remember that. I began to realize that was similar to my crime. I blacked out then. That’s why I couldn’t ever answer questions about it.
We were locked down for nine days. I read the same book at least seven times. My cellie and I made a chess game out of toilet paper and the back of a pad of paper. We talked to our friends through the toilet. You took an empty can of soda and emptied the water out the toilet bowl. Then you cleaned the inside of the bowl real good. After that you could stick your face in in the bowl and speak. If the guy in the next cell did the same thing you could actually hear one another really well. We used that toilet to clean clothes too. Prison life.
I was at that institution for another nine months or so. No other incidents took place. I exercised, played basketball and read books. One day we played football with no gear and just nailed one another on the field. We took the animosity out there. Many kids left the game with busted noses and bruises. Tough guy stuff.
My girlfriend had stuck by me that whole time since I left the streets. She and another friend came to visit me in the prison. I was happy to see her but let her know it was time to let it go. The relationship wouldn’t work while I was inside and it wasn’t fair to her. She resisted. I insisted. We had been together for maybe one summer before I got locked up. It wasn’t that serious to me. She had in the past complained that I didn’t give her enough attention. I never was a really affectionate guy. I could be at times, but I wasn’t always. The streets and life had hardened me. Her accusations only made me want to push her away more.
When the time came to transfer to a regular mainline youth prison I was excited. That ment I could take classes and get more rec time. Things would become more stable, or so I thought. When I arrived on the mainline I lasted about an hour. A van was waiting to pick me and anyone else up who had been charged as an adult, to take us to adult prison. I was seventeen years old when I hit the maximum security adult prison.
I was not afraid. I had been through too much for that place to freak me out. I adapted quickly. Several times men approached me to recruit me. I denied them all. I was done with the gang stuff. I had begun reading the Bible and going to AA inside. They both made a dramatic impact on me. I accepted Christ and the church became my new gang.
I spent the rest of my prison time taking classes, exercising and participating in recovery and church programs. My mind was occupied with self-improvement. My mother came to visit me frequently. Our relationship was stronger in prison than it was when I was growing up. Drugs, alcohol and the streets had stopped distracting me. I learned how to survive and thrive in a hostile environment.
Adult prison was violent. Gangs were attacking each other on a regular basis. Corrections officers at the time still had live rounds and authority to shoot to kill. No warning shot. Again, nothing shocked me. It only reinforced my numbness. I spent the rest of my time without altercation as I walked with God inside prison.
After a total of nine years, four months my parole date finally came. I was ready. My mother and a good friend took me out for breakfast. Then my mother and I went shopping for clothes. I was set up with an apartment by my friend and his church. My mother gave me her small pickup truck. I was given a job by another good friend. Life in the real world resumed. It was in some ways easy to readapt and in other ways very difficult. Prison had given me a view on life that didn’t mesh out in the free world. In prison people were very respectful. People were hurt if you weren’t. On the streets people acted anyway they wanted without many consequences. I snapped more than once on people I worked with. I snapped on people on the road. I snapped on people in church. I snapped on my wife. Thankfully in all instances the other individuals realized quickly to work with me or things would be hostile. Over time I have relaxed, but it has taken as much time back in the free world to get back to normal as it did for me to adapt from normal to prison.
Some people wonder what happened in my life while I was growing up that led to things getting so out of control. I didn’t have a healthy family life. My mother and father got divorced when I was five years old. My father was a Vietnam vet, a drunk, and had grown up in a bad part of Chicago. My mother was an only child raised by very strict parents and she wanted to escape/rebel. They met in college. It didn’t work. My dad was abusive to all of us.
My brother had issues. He was in programs and special schools since he was eight years old. They diagnosed him as paranoid schizophrenic. That definitely had a negative impact on me growing up too. He couldn’t help himself, but the drama made me hate home. That drove me to the streets.
I picked a lot of bad friends. Most of us had bad homes. We experimented with drugs and alcohol from a really early age. I think I had my first drink when I was nine years old. I started heavy drinking by thirteen. I smoked weed around the same age. I had a few friends who did other drugs like crank, acid and coke. I tried them all, reluctantly. Being under the influence, I believe, was the primary reason my judgment was hindered everyday growing up. It is what kept me downward spiraling. I stuck around the same bad friends because they all got drunk and high. We committed crimes to get money to stay high or to build a reputation on the street. I think it had a lot to do with my upbringing too. Where I grew up was tough. People were victimized all the time, and I didn’t want to be a victim. You turn into the bad guy while you are trying to keep the bad guys away.
My earliest memories are probably like everyone else’s, scattered, random, and seemingly unconnected. One of them is of my little brother and me getting into my parents’ car, starting it, lighting a cigarette, and attempting to drive like dad. We were somewhere around four or five years old. We backed the car up into a fence. I guess that was the beginnings of our criminal activity. Funny.
Another early memory I have is back when my parents were on the brink of divorce. For some reason my brother and I ended up with my father at some house he was renting a room at. It was really a sad situation for my brother and me. I remember being so hungry one day I dug into the dog food bag and ate some of it. I remember begging just for a bowl of spaghetti o’s. My dad ruled with an iron fist. My brother and I were kept quiet all the time and stayed out of mischief. At night we all had to sleep in the same bed. My father threatened us if we moved around. No tossing and turning allowed. I use to be locked in that bedroom fairly consistently, alone. There were no toys. I played with a pair of scissors. When they were open all the way I imagined it was a motorcycle. When they were closed I imagined it transformed into a rocket. It was during these times alone in that room that I believe my brother was molested by the person my father was renting the room from. We found out many years later that had happened. It surprised us all. It was a really hard time for us.
Soon after that my mother took my brother and I up to where she had been living with my grandmother (her mother). My grandmother managed an apartment complex and also lived in it. I was fascinated by the pattern of the carpet on the hallway floors for some reason. The garage seemed like a dungeon because the driveway into it from the street was really steep and went down below ground level. I use to run around that complex all the time just playing and acting crazy. It was freedom after what my brother and I had went through.
My grandmother always put out home cooked food on fancy crystal china. Her small apartment was decked out as if she were royalty. There was a crest above the living room mantle. All her furniture was expensive. Grandma would walk us to and from elementary school every single day. I guess this whole time my mother was finishing college to become a respiratory therapist. Eventually we moved out into our own apartment.
My brother got into trouble at school a lot. He ended up getting a psych evaluation and was placed into special schools for the rest of our childhood. He had to move out very young and live in special housing for kids like him. Sometimes he would earn the right to come back home but that always lasted a month or so, then my mother would have to send him back. He was out of control. That was a strange thing in general to me. My brother never acted out toward me at all. He actually seemed quite normal when we were together. That has stayed the same until current day. Somewhere in his mind, where he battles his demons, there is a safe place called his older brother. I have never taken that for granted. Maybe it is because I earned that by going through the same things he did growing up. I don’t know.
I don’t remember school being very difficult. I maintained above average grades until high school. I did notice I had to work harder than most of the kids to keep those grades though. I didn’t grasp things or remember things as easily, it seemed. That use to frustrate me immensely. Sometimes I got so mad about that. I’m sure others can relate.
The other thing about school was my friends. I had two really good friends in elementary school. Unfortunately they both moved away by the time I went to middle school. I had a couple friends I made while playing little league baseball. They were both black. Why is that relevant? I guess because those early friendships formed my attitude toward people of other racial backgrounds for the rest of my life.
I had another really good friend who I hung around with all the time for most of my youth. He was half Mexican and half Persian. We did everything together. There was a creek near his house we would have adventures in. We played video games. We played sports. It was a good time. There was a laundry shoot from the second floor of his house to the laundry room and we would jump into that thing sometimes. Later on in life I went back to their house. I couldn’t believe I could actually fit into that laundry shoot at one point. Cute. Everything is bigger when you are a kid. This friend’s mother treated me like I was her own. I’ll never forget that. I felt more appreciated by her than my own mother some times. I could do no wrong in her eyes and she always was interested in my ideas and activities. The only thing that was kind of weird about her was she sometimes would get together with people, get into a circle in a dark room surrounded by candles. Also, they always had birds frozen in the fridge. Like, next to the eggos. I thought that was all strange. She could do weird things too. Like once she handed me a crystal ball. It was cold. Then she took it from me, held it in her hands and said some stuff, then handed it back to me. It was hot. Crazy. Later on I found out she was a practicing witch.
Now that I’m on the weird friends page, there was another friend I had growing up who liked to eat snails and spiders to freak me out. Another buddy was really into satanic music. They both tried to convert me and I refused.
Another early memory I have is pretty sad in retrospect. At the time I was too young to understand the gravity of it. When I was about ten years old I use to wait for the bus to go to school. There was a neighborhood girl my age who waited there in the mornings as well. One day she invited me to her home. When I came in I noticed there were pictures of what looked like her mother, naked in the hallway staircase up to the second floor. She asked me to come upstairs immediately. She guided me to her bedroom, took her clothes off and lay in her bed. She asked me to come in. I was so freaked out by the whole situation I turned around and ran out the door. I imagine that her being that sexual at such a young age means she had been abused at some point. Like I said, it was very sad.
Now that I think about it, around that age was when several girls started becoming very interested in me. At my birthday party one girl grabbed me and took me into a closet. She was kissing me and trying to get me to do all these things with her. I’m not sure if all that is normal at ten years old or not.
I remember another girl wanting to walk home with me from elementary school. We reached my place first. When we arrived she pushed me against a wall and kissed me. That was the first time I remember being kissed. She walked away like nothing had even happened and I was melting to the wall, in total shock. I literally froze and couldn’t move for probably a few minutes. Weird feelings went through my whole body. They were foreign to me at that point. It was awesome.
More on girls. It seems most of my youth, all the way into high school, I always attracted really forward, aggressive, sexual girls. Like so aggressive they intimidated me. You know that song that says “look out boys, she’ll chew you up, whoa her she comes, she’s a man eater.” Those types. There was no shortage of eager girls where I grew up. Just went with the territory. I lost my virginity at fifteen I think. The girl was a roommate of my friend’s mother. The girl was actually a woman to me at the time, being she was twenty-two. She called me superman because I would go and go till she would have to stop me or she would go to work without sleep.
By the time I was fifteen I was out every weekend drinking and smoking weed with a crew of friends from the neighborhood. That was all we did. Steal alcohol, buy weed and spend most of each Friday and Saturday evening loaded. It was fun most of the time. I ended up hanging out with other kids all over the Bay Area doing that. Many of them were gang members. They all tried to recruit me. I always enjoyed hanging out but didn’t want to join a gang. Too much drama and risk of jail. I had enough problems already. For some reason one local gang decided my friends and I were their enemies though. I got caught up in fights over that. I never could understand why they put me in the enemy category. I guess they just wanted someone to fight. I learned to not back down, even if I didn’t want the problems. They came to me and that was it.
That pretty much sums up life until I got busted. My education became a non-issue to me. My grades fell. I ended up in continuation school. I actually liked it there. We started later in the day. We left earlier. The work was easier. I was surrounded by other kids with issues, so I felt like I didn’t have to struggle to keep up. The teachers gave us a lot of help and attention. Even the receptionist was nice. She brought bagels, juice and candies for us every day. I wish all schools were like that.
It was at that continuation school that I began what was, and still is, my lifetime commitment of lifting weights and exercising. I don’t know why I got hooked, but I did. I guess I was always athletic, but I didn’t like competition. Lifting weights and jogging was exercise I could do with my own rules and agenda, no pressure.
I did play basketball for one season in middle school. I couldn’t memorize the playbook though and that forced me onto the “B” team. Consequently, our team made it to the championship that year though. We lost by one point. At the end of the game the coach wanted me to have the ball and take it to the hole. I couldn’t handle the pressure and refused. He was adamant that I could win the game for us, but I was so scared I just said no way. Who knows, if I had the confidence in that pressure situation maybe I could have won the game for us. It was evidence of my issues as a kid that I reacted that way in the game.
I met my wife in an interesting way. While I was in prison I had a mentor on the outside. He would visit me and teach me the Bible. We did this for many years. One day he was officiating a wedding for a guy who had got out of prison, and while he was there he noticed the bride’s friend. He told me later that God put it on his heart to ask her if she would be willing to write a guy in prison. She waited a few months and prayed about it. Eventually she decided she would. Our letters initially were screened by my mentor. Then we had a few phone calls. In time she decided to come a visit me. This was quite a trip for her, approximately 300 miles, one way. We had hit it off in letters and on the phone, but when she finally came to see me I felt like I should talk her out of it. I saw God all over her and felt like the ultimate sinner. I was unworthy. She just let me dump all my negativity without saying a word. I think the whole visit was just me trying to tell her all the reasons she shouldn’t have anything to do with me. She came back to see me after that. She accepted me. She absorbed all my past and gave it to God. She believed in what God was doing in my life then, and still does now. She is my biggest fan and supporter. I love her. We have been married for almost nine years now. We have no children. She is my age but has had two heart surgeries which require her to take a blood thinner for the rest of her life. This blood thinner makes having children not possible. We looked into adoption, but all the agencies were either too expensive, or dealt with kids who came from bad homes, like me, and I didn’t think I could handle that. So, we have given the kid idea to God.
On the God subject. I became a Christian in prison at seventeen years old. I got involved in various ministries inside and continued then after I was released. I am now thirty-eight years old. I can look back on my experiences and see God communicating to me throughout my life, even when I didn’t realize it.
There was a religious man who waited for the bus with me every day while I was going to continuation school. He shared his faith with me. It seemed too good to be true. I respected him and his views though. I just didn’t think it would work for me. Too pie in the sky, so to speak. I couldn’t see how to believe and live that way. So foreign to everything I knew.
There was a religious group who would set up a large platform in the parking lot of my local corner store on Saturdays. They passed out tracts inviting me to their plays. I never went to one. Seemed too weird.
I passed many churches in my neighborhood and sometimes wondered what it was all about. One time I got enough gumption to grab the handle on the door but got freaked out and ran away. I remember thinking if I walk in the door I would burst into flames. I really thought that.
I remember finding a Bible on the bookshelf at home one day when I was young. I opened it up and read some passages. They made absolutely no sense to me and I lost interest within about two minutes. Didn’t pick that book up again for years.
At one point as a teenager I really began to see that my life was going nowhere fast. I imagined I would be locked up soon. Around that time my younger brother approached me with a gift. It was a wooden cross he had made. It was about two feet tall and one foot wide. I put it above my bed. Soon after I bought some religious candles and placed them around my bed. I also bought a stained glass sign with what is known as the Serenity Prayer on it. I always like silver cross necklaces too. God was in all that.
My girlfriend at that time was use to me dumping a lot of stories on her about my trials and tribulations. One day she stopped me and told me to hang on. She walked away for a few minutes and then came back with an ivory crucifix with Jesus on it. She handed it to me. For some reason the minute I put my hands on it I lost control of myself and cried like a baby. I hadn’t cried in a long time. Life had hardened me. Something about the Cross pierced my heart and my soul at the deepest level. I couldn’t pretend to be strong in front of God. God made me understand my sin and how far I had strayed from Him. Then He revealed the possibility of hope. He offered me a new chance on life. He offered the power to change everything that was wrong, and start over again. Years later, I made the choice to accept Christ.
It was a miraculous change. I found a power in my life that had never been there before. I didn’t think about anything the same. I was confident, independent, and hopeful. I had the power to quit using drugs and drinking. I haven’t done either for twenty-one years. I started reading the Bible, going to church and made new friends. I found the help I needed to follow Christ each day through other Christians. Giving my life to God was the best decision I ever made. My life was going from bad to worse. I would have spent the rest of my life in prison and probably died there on the trajectory I was on, before Christ. I realize now that my thinking was clouded by drugs, alcohol and an attitude I developed in the streets that kept me stuck in darkness and hopelessness. I was trapped until Christ saved me.
I have spent the rest of my life reaching out to people in my community. I have gone back into prisons. I have made friendships with bikers. I have spent time with drug addicts and gang members. I even have brought my new perspective to my family and have seen God change them. I am convinced that God is reaching out to us all every day. There just has to come that point when we look up and surrender. God doesn’t want to change us into sissies. He wants to help us become the people we were created to be. We were all born with a purpose. The purpose was to know and follow Christ. The problem is this world is full of distractions, temptations and difficulties. We start to survive on our own will. Some of us last a long time in that fight. It’s not all bad. The problem is at our very best we are still sinners. We are motivated by self- interest and resist God. In this state we are doomed. Mankind has achieved many good things without looking to God. But in this life, which is short in retrospect, we lose everything when we reject Christ. There is a Scripture in the Bible that says this: “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul.” What it is saying is this: who cares if we achieve every goal we ever have, if in the end we die and are separated from God. Our destiny is bigger. Our life can be better. God doesn’t take anything away from us when we accept Him. He reforms us and gives us the best life we could imagine in Him.
I can honestly say I have never regretted the decision to come to Jesus.