After 30 Years In Prison, Russell Rides Cherokee Street

Wengler shows a photo of himself shirtless. "They called me the 'old man.' But that didn't mean much. I knocked a young man out after he attacked me with my back turned one day," he said.

Russell Wengler, 57, was riding his bike on Cherokee Street when he spotted me with a camera. He threw his arms in the air and awaited my shutter clicks. Wengler had gotten out of prison two weeks ago after being locked up for 30 years.

Wengler revealed pictures on his phone of the Arch that he visited earlier in the day. He continued scrolling through photos. Among them was the gravesite of his parents who died while he was in prison, his brother on a motorcycle, and a few snapshots of printed family photos that were taken when he was younger. He carries in his pocket the things he missed most while being in prison.

Also in his pocket was a letter he had written while in prison.

One day started out like so many before it, but turned into a day that I will never forget. I woke up, rolled out of bed, washed my face, brushed my teeth, put on some classic rock, and had a cup of coffee to start the day. Then I took off to work, cut a few heads of hair without seemingly a care in the world.

I got off work at 10:00 AM and took the short walk back to my cell and then had lunch. But as I was being released to go back to work I got called to the caseworker’s office. The caseworker, Ms. Wilson, picks up the phone and calls someone and says, “is this Debbie?” I’m thinking, “what could Debbie want?” I thought maybe she had some information for me to get ahold of my brother Bill.

But Debbie says, “Russell, I have something to tell you. I didn’t want to, but I have to and I couldn’t bring myself to do it till now. We found Michael dead in bed.” She says, “Jim told me not to go in there, but I did.” She was crying on the phone saying, “I saw the body,” over and over, “we think it was a drug overdose.”

The pain she must have felt from seeing her first child dead... Your bed is supposed to be your safe zone, not your dead zone. So Debbie has to live the rest of her life with the memories of seeing her first child dead in bed, knowing she can no longer help him. That was in March, 17th, 2008, and she still falls apart all the time. She still finds it hard to just get out of bed at times.

We comfort each other when I call her, but I believe it’s harder on her. For me, it was the worst day of my life. The pain was, and still is, tremendous... Knowing I will never feel his little arms hugging me, or hear him say the words that I miss so much: “I love you dad,” or hear him drive me crazy saying, “why dad?,” all the time. We love our kids, but it’s different and much deeper when they’re gone.

I will always hold on to the few memories I have of the good times he and I had together.

Even though Michael died at his own hands, I feel like he died at the hands of someone else, because someone handed him the drugs that killed him. It could have been at the hands of a drunk driver or a drive-by shooting, but in my mind, something as little as a hand to hand drug deal helped take the life out of my son—my only child. I think this will be the greatest loss I will ever feel. One action has hurt a lot of people, and the pain lives on. We live with this loss every day. Sometimes I just want to stay in bed and not think about my son not being there with arms opened wide waiting for me to be released. I feel like a part of my soul died when Micael died. He left us a grandson, so in a way he still lives on.

Sometimes it’s hard to kick start myself in the mornings and get on with another day. But Michael would want me to be strong and hold my head up and keep on keeping on, and be a great Grandpa; and that’s what I’ll do.

Having things like this happen close to home helps me understand how my actions, too, have hurt a lot of people. The ripple effect goes on... I don’t want anyone to suffer ever again because of my actions.

Where will we go from here? when the pieces are shattered , they’re hard to pick up and put back together again. But the memories of Michael that we have made with him will always live on in us. God bless... We will always love you and miss you even more.
— Russell Wengler

After that, Wengler said he had to get to the halfway house before the curfew. He rode his bike down Cherokee Street with his head looking side to side soaking in all its' changes.