"You never get the full effect of a person until you're under the same roof as them. It was a lot for me to adjust to at first," Berna said. "It's going to be more of my giving ... to make sure when he comes out from that wilderness that he can take his suit of armor off."
Days before they married, Berna and Billy juggled trips to the airport to pick up out-of-state family, visits to the tailor and barber, and countless "firsts" for Wheelock — like his first cup of Starbucks coffee.
"The marriage is fine, but I think the most beautiful thing is his freedom," Berna said. "Then God blessed him with someone to take care of him."
Wheelock is also blessed by the support of a large family and network. In June, he plans to visit his mom and some of his seven grown children in Texas.
He also has skills. In prison, he earned HVAC technician universal and custodial maintenance apprentice certifications, as well a restaurant management license.
But clemency doesn't erase his criminal record.
"They get out and they are second-class citizens. They can't get jobs or housing," said Carroll Watkins Ali, director of Project Redemption, a Greater Denver Interfaith Alliance initiative that works to strengthen minority communities and keep people out of prison.
Wheelock says he won't be swayed by the naysayers and is undaunted by discouraging recidivism rates among ex-convicts.
"I promise you, it's like I'm born to be free," he said. "I never accepted my life sentence ... I never got institutionalized because I never let the system be my life."
Wheelock stayed above the troubled fray in some of the harshest federal prisons — including U.S. penitentiaries in Terre Haute, Ind., and Beaumont, Texas — by focusing on self-improvement and using his famous fried chicken to make friends among the inmates and their keepers.
He also saw friends killed, some stabbed to death after falling into the traps of prison society, a culture based on violence, gangs, snitches and vendettas, Wheelock said.
"In prison, all you've got is your word," he said. "You ain't got freedom. All you got is your word, and you live and die by it."
Some become embittered in prison, but Wheelock turned into a sort of jailhouse philosopher. He hopes to write a book about faith in the face of despair, to turn his experience into a prevention guide for others.
For those "who find themselves on the other side of that wall," Wheelock says he plans to begin a consulting service to guide prisoners along the straight and narrow path that will keep them alive and, perhaps, give them a shot at clemency.
"Freedom without a mission is a prison all its own," Wheelock said. "I want to stop you before you need me. But if you need me, know I come with the teeth of 21 years."
His ultimate dream is to become a motivational speaker, reaching out to young black men, maybe even members of pro sports teams like the Broncos and Nuggets, offering a warning against the allure of money.
"I was a 26-year-old in a Jack in the Box uniform and ain't never seen it or heard of (crack) before," Wheelock said about the day in 1989, after one of the two restaurants where he worked closed, when a friend offered to help him make money to support his mother and kids by selling cocaine outside of nightclubs.
"Stupidity led me to believe I needed to do more than just getting another job," he said.
— Heightened anxiety
Experts say the cocaine-overdose death of rising basketball star Len Bias in 1986 heightened public anxiety about the drug that led to sweeping political action. This included mandatory-minimum sentences determined using formulas that treated 1 gram of crack cocaine the same as 100 grams of powder.
This quickly led to increased numbers of incarcerations, primarily of nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom were poor and black, said Art Way, a drug policy analyst at the Drug Policy Alliance in Colorado.
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