DENVER — A hasty signature in a yellowed paper ledger and the single snip of blue-handled scissors to remove his ankle monitoring device gave Billy Ray Wheelock his freedom.
It took less than 60 seconds — an unceremonious end to a 21-year haul in prison governed by self-discipline and personal advocacy that moved the president to grant him clemency.
Wheelock, 51, shook the hands of the staff at a Denver halfway house where he spent the last few months of his captivity. Buoyed by two decades of pent-up dreams, he walked through the rusty front gate the morning of April 17, to where his fiancée awaited him to begin their new life together.
"I refuse to be free and unhappy," Wheelock said.
Wheelock was 29 years old when he got life in prison for possession of and conspiracy to distribute 99.62 grams of crack cocaine.
His sentence was handed down by a Texas court in 1993, during the heyday of the war on drugs.
Crack was perceived as more addictive and dangerous then, and sentences for crack-related offenses were sometimes 100 times greater than for crimes involving the same amount of powder cocaine.
On Dec. 19, in a clemency order that acknowledged "a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust," President Barack Obama shortened the sentences of Wheelock and seven other men and women serving long prison terms for cocaine-related crimes.
"Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness," Obama wrote. "But it must not be the last."
Wheelock and the others now are poised to become the faces of work to reform the federal clemency process that has stranded perhaps thousands of other non-violent drug offenders sent to prison in the late 1980s and 1990s under harsh mandatory sentencing laws.
"Someday this (sentencing disparity) will be remembered as one of the most horrific things we've done in American history," said University of Denver professor Arthur Gilbert, a U.S. drug policy scholar who became friends with Wheelock's fiancée while both were working on campus.
Changes to the sentencing system have begun. In 2010, severe mandatory minimums enacted in 1986 for crack offenders were reduced.
And on Wednesday, just days after Wheelock and some of the others walked free, the U.S. Department of Justice, under a directive from the Obama administration, announced major changes to the clemency process because of cases like theirs.
— "She won my heart"
Two days after being freed, Wheelock married Berna Lang — the woman he fell in love with in prison, before he knew if he would ever taste freedom again.
They met on a Muslim dating website. On April 25, 2013, Wheelock was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence from FCI Yazoo City, Miss.
He and Berna had been engaged for a year.
"She won my heart because she accepted life means life sentence," Wheelock said.
Between her jobs running a coffee shop at the University of Denver and bartending at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Berna works from 50 to 70 hours a week.
She also runs a cheesecake-making business and continues her practice of Islam.
Berna, 64, has two grown daughters living in Denver. One is a counselor who has been helping her mother and Wheelock adjust to life together in a small southeast Denver apartment.
Wheelock left prison with only the clothes on his back and a limp in his leg, the result of an injury in a prison football game years ago.
"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.
"The whole issue around crack cocaine is a microcosm of everything bad and scary about the drug war," Way said. "You basically have one high-profile situation that led to a lot of bad laws. Crack is no more addictive or damaging than powder."
The mandatory sentences so troubled Denver U.S. District Court Judge John Kane that he exercised his right as a senior judge to pick and choose his cases and refused to hear criminal drug cases from 1989 to 2008.
"I think the war on drugs has been very bad on the administration of justice. It has clogged the courts and the prisons," Kane said.
"And I think there is a demonstrable racial and ethnic bias in the drug laws."
Yielding to changes in public perception, Congress and Obama in 2010 passed the Fair Sentencing Act that changed that formula to treat 1 gram of rock cocaine like 18 grams of powder.
But the act cannot be applied retroactively, so people convicted in the 1990s are condemned to serving their long sentences.
"I would've still been in prison today if I had not been granted executive clemency," Wheelock said. "I'm not claiming innocence. I wasn't granted a pardon. I'm just saying the punishment I received wasn't warranted. It was overkill."
Not everyone believes that the drug war was a failed policy or that Congress should lessen the mandatory minimum sentences.
The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, which represents federal prosecutors, wrote a memo to Attorney General Eric Holder in January, disapproving of his public support for sentencing reform.
"We believe we are obligated to express concern over your actions ... in announcing support for Congressional action that would weaken mandatory minimum sentencing," the group wrote. "We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as 'broken' or in need of major reconstruction."
The group has not publicly opposed DOJ's clemency reforms.
— Isolated from change
Wheelock had been jailed continuously since May 7, 1992. That year, the first Internet browser launched, the Space Shuttle Endeavour made its maiden voyage, Los Angeles was embroiled in the Rodney King riots and Russia and the U.S. officially declared the Cold War was over.
"I watched the world change, I saw TV and everything," he said. "I just wasn't a part of it."
From behind cement walls, he watched his children grow into teenagers who faced their own problems and then pass into adulthood.
He helped as much as he could when his mother hit a rough patch, becoming virtually penniless and homeless before rebounding financially, getting a home, falling in love with her now-husband and writing a book of poetry about the loss of her youngest son, Billy, to the drug war.
"I could've lived the life and survived," Wheelock said. "But I couldn't do it because of my mother and all the people who depend on me being strong for them."
And just months before receiving word of his clemency, his father lost his battle with brain cancer, never knowing his son would walk free again.
Congress is now considering the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 that would make reduced sentencing available to those convicted before the 2010 law change — even without a clemency order.
Regardless of the bill's success, the Obama administration intends to act.
Obama has granted fewer pardons and commutations than any other modern U.S. president, which he hopes to correct with the Clemency Project 2014, a series of reforms that will change the way petitions reach his desk.
In his first five years, Obama granted 40 out of 10,001 clemency and pardon petitions received. George W. Bush granted 60 clemency or pardon petitions out of 5,174 received after the same period in office.
The Justice Department estimates there are thousands of men and women who may be eligible for early release — nonviolent, low-level drug offenders who have no ties to gangs or organized crime, in or out of prison, and who have served at least a decade of their sentences.
DOJ has enlisted the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to help find eligible candidates and has asked non-profits and private attorneys to help review inmates' clemency petitions.
The new resources being offered highlight Wheelock's solo struggle.
"I didn't even know I could apply for clemency and that they had applications right there at the prison until 2005, when someone just mentioned it in passing," Wheelock said.
Wheelock did his research and began shaping himself for clemency, enrolling in classes and avoiding trouble. In August 2011, when he felt his case was strong enough, he submitted his petition to the president.
Everything Wheelock figured out on his own is now being systematically rolled out in the DOJ's new clemency project.
As Washington toyed with concepts of equity before the law, Wheelock waited two years for a response from the U.S. pardon attorney.
At 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 19, 2013, Wheelock was called into the lieutenant's office at the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence.
The warden opened his file, commended him for being a model inmate, and then she began to read.
"Be it known that I, Barack Obama, President of the United States of America ... do hereby grant the said application and commute the prison sentence imposed upon the said Billy Ray Wheelock."
For decades, showing any sort of emotion was a liability. Now, sitting in the prison office, Wheelock's pressure valve burst.Comment on this story
"I couldn't hear her anymore. I couldn't talk, I couldn't regain my composure, the tears just kept coming," Wheelock said, "When you've been waiting for something for 21 years, you don't know what to do when it comes."
His wife, Berna, says "we've all got something to learn from this man," and prays that the community support will make the transition to freedom easy.
"I want to share my experience so people don't make the same mistakes," Wheelock said. "I asked God, 'Why me?' But, then, he showed me. It's like one life that was taken, but there is life that (I hope will be) saved because of my story."
Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com