John Kass: A judge prays for ex-con in court, and he is heard

The story about the ex-con who robbed a bank just so he’d be sent back to prison — for a bed and three meals a day — was heartbreaking.

It disturbed the judge. And when I read the story in the Gary Post-Tribune, written by reporter Ruth Ann Krause, it disturbed me too.

“I hope to God someone reads about this and offers some help to you,” Lake Superior Court Judge Clarence Murray said last week. Judge Murray was addressing David Potchen, 53.

Potchen had been on probation for bank robbery for years but had been working an $11-an-hour job in Indiana. He lived in a Gary motel and walked miles to work. He didn’t cause any trouble. He just did his job. He’s a welder.

Last March, he was laid off. “I begged the guy don’t lay me off,” Potchen told the judge. “I said I would forfeit my insurance and not take a raise.”

But he was let go. Soon he was homeless. Things got so bad, he said in court, that he lived out in the woods for a day or two. And he just couldn’t take it anymore.

So he walked to a bank in Merrillville, Indiana, slipped the teller a robbery note and stuffed about $1,600 in cash in his pocket. Then he walked outside, sat on the curb and waited for the cops to come.

“Once I ran out of money, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing everything again,” he said. “I went inside, took the money, sat on the curb and waited for them (police) to come.”

Sometimes homeless people with mental illnesses act out so they’ll get help. And even the rational homeless can act out to spend a few warm nights in jail, away from marauders who prey on them.

But to rationally go about seeking eight years in prison? Potchen said he’d plead to bank robbery if he received that sentence. He told the judge he did it because he felt like a throwaway. A hearing has been scheduled for March 18.

I don’t know what the judge will do, but it sounds to me as if he wants to help.

“You’re not a throwaway, Mr. Potchen,” the judge said in court. “You have value, sir, I’m always optimistic and hopeful that there are still good people out there who believe freedom is important.”

Freedom and dignity are vitally important, when you have money in the bank and food and you’re warm and clean. But remove these things and see what happens to ideals. We tend to forget.

The middle class forgot until the economy tanked and many lost their jobs. When they gave up looking for work, the federal government stopped counting them as jobless. And these Americans were statistically disappeared.

All some men want, really, is work and something to eat and maybe to drink and the chance of meeting a woman once in a while. They like being in a crew, they like routine. All they need is work and structure. They don’t ask for much. They don’t hurt people. They don’t act like they’re special.

If all you’ve had are nice office jobs with nice clothes and meetings on carpets, you’ll never know such men. But they’re out there. And our blindness makes it worse.

Potchen was sentenced for his first bank robbery in 2002. At that time, too, he had been laid off, and was about to lose his home and his truck.

He entered a bank with a shotgun, although he said he had no intention of hurting anyone. “I told them nothing’s going to happen. This is just something I had to do because I’m losing everything,” he told the judge last week.

Stephen Scheele, Potchen’s defense lawyer, said his client just wants to work.

“You have a fellow who is charged with doing something that’s very serious, but his motive by all appearances was not to rob this bank to enrich himself but rather to put a roof over his head,” Scheele said in an interview Friday. “He had sort of fallen to that deepest depth where he just felt this is sort of like a survival mechanism.

“This appears to be what it is. David just found himself in a situation where he wanted to work. He needs a sense of purpose, and work fulfills that for him.”

Scheele said if the Post-Tribune reporter hadn’t been in the courtroom, no one would have heard about Potchen.

But people did learn about it. I’m told that job offers are coming in from the Midwest, even as far off as New Jersey.

Lamont Blackwell told me he read about Potchen. Blackwell is a shift supervisor for Lippert Components, a company with an office in Goshen, Indiana, that makes frames for RVs. They’re always looking for welders, Blackwell said.

“I read it in the paper. I called his attorney,” Blackwell told me. “If they could arrange some kind of housing for him, I could carpool him in.”

Mr. Blackwell, I said, why would you offer a hand to help a desperate man?

“There’s a lot of ex-convicts in the world, sir,” Blackwell said. “I had some legal trouble myself. But we’re always looking for people who want to work. We’ll see. We’ve got things to do if he wants to work. We’ve got a lot of things to get done out here.”

It sounds to me as if the judge’s prayer was answered.


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