Townes is a convicted murderer and ex-drug dealer who now pleads with teens to stay off drugs and out of gangs.
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can still feel that grass.It's as poignant to him today as the feeling of handcuffs clasped tightly on his
wrists, the sight of a police officer's gun pointed at his
face, the sound of San Quentin's bars closing behind him.
savoring the taste of freedom, a taste he's
working tirelessly to keep on the palates of Shelby County teenagers.
"I hadn't seen grass in eight years," Townes
recalled."It felt so good to roll around in it." Townes
had just been released from prison, where he'd been sentenced to life on a charge of first-degree murder and assorted other crimes.He
was one of a handful of California murderers to be paroled on the first request, aided in part by a letter from the judge who presided over his
These days, Townes
, 50, is back in his
hometown, talking to teenagers in classrooms and to their parents in living rooms. He's
the sole staff of an organization called Shifting Gears with hopes that, once it gets tax-exempt status, he
can get grants to make it a clearinghouse for information to help teenagers. He
wife, Jocelyn, live on her
salary as a law firm receptionist and money he
makes from workshops and assorted odd jobs.
For now, as he
speaks to kids, he
holds up a pen and calls it an Uzi, citing the power the written word has to influence a young person's life.
In private conversations, he
drops names like Manson and Sirhan as he
speaks of prison acquaintances.
remembers eulogies he's
given for kids who overdosed.
returned here from California in 1992, Townes
has spent much of his
time - most without pay - pleading with kids to stay straight and counseling their parents when they don't. While in prison, he earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.Since returning to Memphis, he worked for two years as a counselor for a drug treatment center but resigned in frustration after three teenagers died: two from overdoses and one from a gunshot. Townes
will talk to anyone who'll listen.He's active in several youth organizations and is a member of Memphis Police Director Walter Crews's advisory board.
commanding, and he
looks good," said Crews."The message he
gives kids is two-fold: Do it right so you won't have to suffer, and there is hope."
Twice a month, Townes
speaks to teenagers in Juvenile Court detention.
In 1999, more than 30 years after meeting Turner, Townes
was named volunteer of the year by Turner's staff in the court's GOALS program, which features volunteer speakers trying to motivate teenagers.
is able to develop a relationship with kids.
says it's what he
needs to do to make sense of the life he
used to lead.
"God has granted me a gift," said Townes
didn't take me all the places He
did for me to keep this knowledge to myself."
Others put him on a higher spiritual plain.
's price in 1977 was $250,000: the amount of bail set after a SWAT team of 30 police officers surrounded his
car near San Francisco and arrested him shortly after one man was killed and two other people were shot in a drug deal that Townes arranged. Townes
acknowledges that he
set up the deal, but says he
wasn't present when the shooting occurred.But another drug dealer said he
was, and Townes
"To this day, I don't know why they convicted him," said Parker Kelly, Townes's
court-appointed attorney, now retired and living in Montana.
Kelly, who instantly remembered Townes
, said his trial generated lots of attention, mainly because the victims had been members of a radical prison gang.
doesn't talk a lot about the incident now, only to admit his
part in it.And even when he
appears restless, wanting to get back to talking about the mission he's
talking to a reporter, meeting with a parent or writing on a blackboard, Townes's presence is, as several described it, commanding. His
clothes are crisp, his
shoes gleam, his
voice crackles with preacher-like evangelism and Cosby-like humor.
It's immediately after lunch at South Side High School's alternative school, a program for 50 or so students nestled in a corner of the building.
"How many of you know me from Juvenile Court?"Townes
About six hands go up, a gaggle of giggles erupts.
"I want you to know that what you're doing right now can have an effect on the rest of your life, and I'm living proof of that," Townes
One boy in the back stretches in his
seat, puts his
head back and goes to sleep.A group of others carry on their own conversation in one corner, and another group across the room does the same.
tells them he's
an ex-con.The students sit up.The noise stops.The faces are sober.
"It's OK if you don't hear me today because there will be a day when you will hear me and I won't be around," he
is pumped.When several say marijuana should be legalized, Townes's animation draws chuckles as he
suggests that they might not appreciate being operated on by a surgeon who's high.
stands still and stares into their eyes as he
talks about gang involvement.
"There are two things you need to make your minds up about real quick if you want to join a gang.
"First, you have to say to yourself, 'I am ready to die.'
"Second, you have to be ready to accept the fact that you will have to take the gang over your mama, your daddy, your sister and everything and everyone you hold dear."
hears of the death of a teenager he
knows, he'll go to the funeral, and occasionally will eulogize the deceased, but not with the usual sentiments. He
remembered the funeral of Justin Mason, 16, who died of an overdose.
"The problem I have with funerals when it comes to kids and drugs is the minister will say something like, 'Oh, he
whole life ahead of him,' and they make the death seem so glamorized.
"But I couldn't ask for a better time to pass on my message.There are the friends and family sobbing.
So what did it take for Townes
to turn his
own life around?
Townes grins and taps his
"Mindset.Anyone can turn their life around."
again diverts attention from himself and talks about kids.
"I tell kids who are disgruntled about their parents that they're not 5 or 6 anymore - that they are the decision-makers in their lives."