PLEASANT VIEW — Michael Shawn Keenan was once labeled by police as a "huge danger" to the public.
During a three-month period in late 2005 through 2006, Keenan was seemingly stealing cars, getting in chases with police, getting arrested and being released every other week.
"When those (thefts and chases) were happening, I was slamming methamphetamine," he said. "I had (stolen cars) parked all over, man. I had new cars parked all over neighborhoods. Any neighborhood I was in, I always had two or three cars just in case."
After one particular chase with police, officers agreed not to seek charges for yet another stolen vehicle if he'd just take them to at least one other vehicle that they could recover, he said. Keenan agreed.
Those years of "madness," as Keenan calls them — or "darkness" — consumed him for the first three decades of his life.
But that was then.
Now, the man who was once called by police a "menace" to society claims he has completely changed his life.
"That darkness in my life is over. I will never be that man again. I've lived, I've learned from it, now I'm done with it. I'll never be that man again. I know in my heart. I see life differently," he said.
Prior to 2010, Keenan was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail 11 different times. His history of probation, parole and incarceration with the Utah State Prison dates back to the early 1990s.
"I was living my life trying to be somebody I wasn't. I never really had a chance to discover who I was because of the way I was raised, and so I blamed my past and my upbringing on just everything in general and everybody else," he said. "So I was continuously making poor choices and not learning from them. So I continued to rob and steal cars."
This week marks one year since Keenan was discharged from prison. In the past year, he has not been re-arrested or charged and has remained clean.
The biggest challenge now, however, for the 40-year-old Keenan, is to convince others that he is a changed man.
"Just give me a chance. Open your door. Let me in. See that I'm not going to come in and pick your pocket," he said.
Born to be bad?
Growing up, Keenan said, he was taught how to fight and learned how to be a criminal. He began stealing at 11. By 17 he was robbing stores with his friends, though he said he was always the getaway driver because he couldn't face the people he was robbing.
Keenan said he was surrounded by "negative influences" and had "spurts" of drug addiction, which he supported by stealing.
"Those darknesses are horrible. Addiction is bad," he told the Deseret News recently from the front porch of his home in Pleasant View.
But, more than anything, Keenan thought being a criminal was all he was meant to do in life.
"I thought that's all I was," he said. "It was like my way of life. I was a criminal. I figured I'd die in prison. I figured I'd be an old man in prison and I didn't care.
"I was continuing down a dark path, lost, not even knowing who I was."
It wasn't until his most recent stay in prison, in 2011, that he began to turn his life around. It all started, he said, because he got "aggressive" with another inmate in a dispute over food.
"The way I reacted was not how I was feeling," he said. "I reacted the way I was taught to react."
After the incident with the inmate, Keenan said he did a lot of "soul searching" while in prison.
"I was just tired. I was tired of being someone that I wasn't," he said. "I woke up. I couldn't blame anybody else — no matter how I was raised or who I was or whatever environment. I had the ultimate say in who I was."
His soul searching included the study of many religions. In those studies, he found a word that ultimately brought him peace — the Hebrew word for God.
"I found a name," he said. "I found the name Yahweh. That right there opened my eyes to a lot of things. That we all walk in darkness. We all walk in our own form of darkness and to get out of it you have to discover the light. The light for me was that Yahweh."
Today, Keenan said, he still honors the Sabbath. He is also trying to better his life through education. Earlier this year he received his high school diploma and now plans to enroll at a technical school later this month.
"I've never accomplished anything, never finished anything in my life," he said prior to getting his diploma. "I do everything I can to focus on his name (Yahweh) and focus on myself. Because it teaches that we're all loving beings, right? So to act out violently toward one another in any situation is ridiculous, right? Because there's a peaceful solution to everything, no matter what the conflict. I'm different now, man."
As Keenan talks, he points to new construction on the landing outside his neighbor's front door where he helped build a railing. A small example, he said, of how he wants to help his fellow man now instead of stealing from him.
Keenan is personable when he talks. There's a slight look of nervousness in his eyes as he opens up about his life and leaves himself vulnerable. But there's also what sounds to be earnestness in his voice as he talks about being a changed man. He says today he "feels free" in ways he never imagined were possible.
But getting others to believe him has proven to be a challenge.
Once a thief ...
Since being released from prison, Keenan has found that whenever he tries to do something to move his life forward, "My past comes and slams it right in my face, almost every time."
Getting a job has proven to be especially challenging.
"It's impossible. Everybody judges you for who you were, not who you are today. And it sucks, man. It's horrible," he said with exasperation.
Not only do potential employers look at his criminal history, there are old stories about his past from the Deseret News and other places that come up whenever an Internet search is done.
"Even though it says, 'We will not discriminate against you,' if you're a felon, they do. Everybody does," he said.
Recently, Keenan tried to get a job at a temporary services company but couldn't get past the application process.
"'Your past shows that you're dishonest, so I can't hire you,'" an employer told him. "See, right there you're discriminating against me for who I was."
Keenan knows that convincing employers that his one year of being good is the new norm, and not his prior 39 years of life, is an uphill challenge. But he believes people should and he hopes people will give him a chance.
"I'm not that person that I used to be. I'm totally different. I'm a totally different person than I used to be," he said. "People need to stop judging me for who I was. It doesn't matter what I say, cause they'll always judge, regardless."
Continuous support from his family and new girlfriend have helped him, he said.
"She's the first woman who doesn't hold my past against me."
But after he was released from prison, Keenan soon realized he would have to move to get away from the influences of old friends he used to hang out with.
"I was like, 'I'm done with you all.' I said, 'I have nothing to offer you. I said, 'What I learned, I learned from y'all. And that's all that we had. All we had was crime and drugs and negativity.'"
The names of Keenan's son and daughter, who were adopted into another family during his dark years, are tattooed on the bottoms of each forearm.
There is a tattoo of a dolphin on his stomach. He said the dolphin was drawn over the top of his name, which used to be tattooed on his stomach until another car chase and arrest in the 1990s.
"Got in a high-speed chase, drove off a cliff, woke up in the hospital. And they (police officers) were like, 'What's your name?' And I gave them some fake name. And they're like, 'That's not matching up. Run the name on his stomach.' And I was like, 'Oh, that was a big mistake.'"
But in addition to reminders of his dark past, he has added tattoos to show off his new dedication to religion, including a cross that stretches from his neck to his stomach.
Keenan believes because of his past, he could be a benefit to companies working in loss prevention. He believes car dealerships, in particular, would want to hire him for advice on improving security as many of today's businesses make it too easy for criminals to steal cars off lots.
Keenan is also trying to be cast on an upcoming new TV reality show. He knows he would be stereotyped as the "criminal" or "ex-con" on the show. But he believes he has something to bring to the table to help others because of what he's already been through. The key, Keenan said, is for people not to put "blinders" on, to continue to grow and not to get "stuck in one mode of thinking."
"Mistakes we make aren't stupid unless we don't learn from them," he said.
"I'm Michael Shawn Keenan, that's who I am. I'm a man, just like everybody else. I've made poor choices, I've made good choices. I've loved, I've laughed, I've cried, I've been depressed. We all feel the same, we just all do it in our own way. I'm no better or worse than anybody else."
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