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Father, son get a second chance in the most unlikely place


A sore back brought Michael Thornton to the jailhouse infirmary, but far worse problems plagued him. • He was in trouble — again. Even more devastating, his youngest son had gotten into trouble, too. Serious trouble. Somewhere in the jail, William was wearing the same inmate uniform. • Michael was anxious, sad, disappointed and scared for his son. Most of all, he was angry. For a guy who had made more than a few mistakes in his life, Michael was a perfectionist. He liked to give orders, and the person to whom he gave the most was William. William was his project, a chance to prove that at 48 he could still get it all right. • Now the project looked like a failure. And when William walked through the infirmary door in early September 2005 for a checkup — the first time Michael had seen his son since the 17-year-old's arrest — the father's anger poured out. • A female guard urged William to hug his father, but neither moved toward the other. • "We don't have that type of relationship," Michael said. • Six or seven other inmates lingered around them. Michael was glad for the audience. He laid into William, as if they were alone in their living room. • "Neither one of us is supposed to be here," he told William. "But you especially are not supposed to be here. • You promised me."

This is where such stories usually end, with a broken promise, an irrevocable mistake and finally a jail cell. So how does it happen that a story that should be ending is in fact only beginning? How does a second chance happen in such an unlikely place?

The answer may lie in a father's expectations.

• • •

Michael grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Orlando, the son of a nurse and a country club assistant manager with strong ideas about raising kids.

"If you're not playing cards or basketball, stay out of a group," he'd tell Michael.

He advised his son to work with his head, not his hands, and to keep learning. "Always be teachable."

But Michael was a headstrong guy with ideas of his own, so he skipped out on art school, joined the Air Force, traveled the world, married, divorced and reconnected with a childhood sweetheart. They named William, their only child together, after Michael's father.

When it came to raising William, Michael was just like his old man. He taught his son to cook and clean and iron. He frowned upon rap music, sloppy dress, poor English, bad grades, immaturity and tattoos — symptoms of what Michael called "knucklehead syndrome." Image was everything, he told William, and a son's actions reflected on his father.

"Stop doing that half-stuff," Michael said when he felt his son wasn't giving his best effort.

William, a quiet and well-mannered boy, thought his father yelled too much. Once, William hid all the family's belts, trying to rid the household of anything his father could use to whip him.

Michael admits he had a bad temper. But the world was a cruel place, and he wanted to prepare William for it in a way he hadn't for his older children.

Maybe, too, he hoped to keep his son from repeating his mistakes.

Over the years, Michael became addicted to cocaine. He did short jail stints for using a stolen credit card and bouncing checks. But he never lost his willingness to improve. He got clean with the help of a Christian ministry in Inglis.

Gloria Adams, the ministry's leader, said Michael was stern with William, but it was obvious that he loved his son.

"He was trying to be the perfect father," she said.

Sometimes his wife, Lola, thought he was trying to be a little too perfect. She said he was smothering William. When Michael refused to back down, he ended up sleeping on the couch.

The Thorntons moved to Citrus County to be closer to the ministry, where they volunteered. Michael worked in pest control and then started a lawn care business.

One customer, a psychiatrist who lived in an exclusive neighborhood, often gave the Thorntons expensive furniture and other household goods to donate to the ministry.

That's how Michael says he got a blue velvet bag containing coins and jewelry, which he pawned. But in May 2003, the doctor's wife reported the jewelry missing from her home, where Lola worked as the housekeeper.

Authorities charged Michael with dealing in stolen property and providing false information to pawnbrokers. He insisted he was innocent and trusted that a judge would agree.

He didn't. Circuit Judge Ric Howard declared Michael "incredibly guilty" and sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

Michael cried on the bus ride back to jail. It devastated him to let down his family. He gave William, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, strict instructions over the phone: Take care of your mother and grandmother. Make sure they always know where you are.

In a letter that July, William tried to reassure his father.

Mom knows every move I make so nothing will happen okay . . . Don't worry I will be fine.

William and Lola moved to Sumter County to live with her mother. But Lola, now the family's chief breadwinner, was away from home more often for work.

The structure Michael had so carefully crafted for William began to crack. The teen stayed out late with friends. Michael got word from his wife that their son was being disrespectful.

It got worse.

On Dec. 28, 2004, William borrowed his girlfriend's car and drove to visit another girl back in Citrus County. He did not have a driver's license.

Speeding home just before midnight, he skidded past a hard-to-see stop sign on a poorly lit road directly into the path of a sport utility vehicle. The driver and passenger in the SUV, both in their 20s, died. William was airlifted to a Tampa hospital with a broken jaw and a deep gash in his head.

In prison, Michael wondered if all those years of wearing his voice thin were for nothing.

"If I was home, he never would have done that," Michael said. "He would have rather faced God than me."

• • •

Five months after the crash, authorities arrested William. Three months after that, he pleaded no contest to two adult counts of vehicular homicide.

On the morning of Sept. 16, 2005, William was summoned to be sentenced — by the same judge who put Michael away for 30 years.

Worried that Judge Howard would stereotype his son as a thug, Michael had urged William to cut his ponytail before the hearing. William didn't listen.

The judge sentenced William to 30 years in prison.

With permission from the guards, Michael was waiting in a holding cell at the Citrus jail when his son arrived from booking. William put on a tough face, but Michael saw that he was hurting.

"Are you okay?" Michael asked, striking a gentler tone than he had earlier that month in the infirmary.

"Yeah, I'm fine."

Michael didn't waste time. After his own court hearing, he would return to prison in North Florida, and William would be sent to live among rapists, child molesters and murderers in a prison somewhere else. He wanted to pass on to his son everything he knew about surviving such a place.

Much of the guidance sounded like what the father told his son when they lived on the outside.

Stay out of trouble.

Pull up your pants.

Make your bed.

Don't be part of groups.

Those horror stories people told about prison? They were true. Keep in view of the guards, Michael warned, and always show them respect.

"You might as well unpuff your chest," Michael told William. "It's not going to be your mean old black dad always harping on you. It's going to be a guard with a can of Mace. You think you're tired of me yelling? You ain't seen yelling yet.

"Just about everything your mom and I told you not to do, you did," Michael continued. "What you're reaping now is what you sowed.

"I'm not going to say I told you so. I'm going to wait and let it sink in until you tell me I was right."

William stayed quiet. He wasn't in the mood for a lecture. Michael thought he saw tears in William's eyes.

Soon, the guards came to take the father away. His dreams for his son appeared to be dashed. The two men were going to prison for so long that it was possible they might never see each other again. Their relationship — strained and distant — would be frozen just as it was.

But second chances come without warning. Michael Thornton will tell you what his dad told him: Always be teachable.

• • •

In early October, three weeks after they spoke in the holding cell, Michael learned that his son was being shipped from the prison reception center back to the Citrus jail for a hearing.

Michael was still at the jail waiting for his own rescheduled motion hearing. He asked a guard if William could be placed in Pod F6 with him.

"That's where he's going," the guard said.

Jail officials say they intentionally put the father and son together, but aren't sure why. No jail policy prohibited it.

By then, the fall of 2005, Michael and William had not lived together in 1 ½ years. Only a few weeks had passed since Michael last saw William in the holding cell, but already he could see changes in his son. The teen looked stronger. He had cut his hair and was keeping it groomed.

His pants were still a little too big and a little too low for Michael's taste. When a guard came around with a uniform cart, Michael hovered as William chose his size.

"3X," William said.

"1X," Michael said.

Michael slept on the bottom bunk in a cell with two other men. When William arrived, one of the men changed bunks so that William could have the top half of his father's bed.

Michael noted approvingly that William kept his clothes folded neatly in his trunk. But his son still didn't make his bed right and prison guards demanded precision. Michael demonstrated the proper technique, pulling the sheet up first, then the blanket. He folded them back three times together, leaving a spot for the pillow above. He showed William how to make square corners, pulling the covers so tight a quarter could bounce off the bed.

They didn't spend all their time together, but they didn't hang out much with other inmates either. They slept, watched TV, wrote letters, read their Bibles.

They sought comfort in art, an interest they shared. William drew portraits and pictures of things he saw in magazines and tried to hold his tongue when Michael looked over his shoulder to offer unsolicited critiques.

In the past, those critiques drove him nuts. But now, even though he couldn't avoid his father, he didn't mind as much. To William it felt as if they were starting over.

William noticed differences in his father, too. Prison seemed to have softened him. When they talked, hunched over next to each other on Michael's bottom bunk, Michael didn't yell. By not yelling, he actually kept William's attention.

Other times, William would watch his father laugh with inmates in the common area. He wasn't used to seeing the lighter side of his father. He liked it.

As the days passed, William found himself becoming more receptive to his father's words. His father was right: The other young inmates were rude, obnoxious and immature. He knew his parents raised him differently, and he was thankful.

His father still irritated him. But in truth, he and Michael were more alike than either had been willing to admit. Neither man suffered fools. Instead of whining about problems, they searched for solutions.

Their legal problems remained daunting. Michael couldn't get over the similarities in their cases: Same judge, same public defender's office, same sentence.

William was eager to get started on his appeals and told his father so during their talks in the cell.

"Leave it alone," Michael warned.

He didn't want William to blow his chances by filing the wrong paperwork. He told him to get his high school diploma in prison and to think about what he wanted to do when he got out.

"I can't think that far," William said.

"You have to think that far," Michael replied. "You have to think of things that are not as they are."

They were living in a monument to failure, a place where people get forgotten. No one would have been surprised if they resigned themselves to a life behind bars.

But Michael wasn't giving up. Not on himself, and certainly not on William.

• • •

A guard woke Michael up early.

"Pack your stuff."

The morning of Oct. 27, 2005, after three weeks in a cell with his son, he was headed back to prison.

He stirred William awake. The teen got down off the top bunk to help collect his dad's things in a plastic bag. Michael gave William socks and long johns and his extra food and reminded him for the millionth time to stay out of trouble.

"All right," William said, and this time his father believed him.

Then they did something neither had been willing to do just a month before in the infirmary.

They hugged.

"I love you," Michael said.

"I love you, too," William said.

That night, William moved down to his father's bed.

• • •

Michael didn't want to lose ground with his son once they were physically divided again. He got permission from corrections officials for him and William to write each other letters from their prison cells.

William kept his father abreast of his progress. He earned a high school diploma and completed 1,428 hours of computer classes. He read his Bible to battle boredom.

All was not perfect, however.

Against his father's advice, he married an old girlfriend and got a tattoo. The marriage lasted just three months. The tattoo, a rosary and flames etched onto his inner right arm by another inmate with cooking oil soot, was permanent.

Michael couldn't yell anymore, but he found creative ways to counsel his son.

One day, he opened a letter from his wife. It contained a portrait of her that William had sketched in pencil. The sketch reminded Lola of similar portraits Michael had drawn of her over the years.

Michael divided the picture in half. With a pencil, he set about enhancing the shading and details on one side of Lola's face. In the margins, he wrote a dozen little notes.

William, stop half doing anything! This particular subject is my favorite! She deserves your best efforts!

Check your shading!

And her hair is beautiful not scraggly.

Keep goin' though your proportions of her face are excellent!

Stop being lazy! I know your potential! Stop punkin' out!

Be Better Than Me!

William was annoyed by Michael's pickiness. But he had to admit his dad was right about the hair.

• • •

Last December — three years, seven months and four days after William first went to jail — a new judge threw out his conviction and 30-year sentence and sent him home for Christmas. By then, William had spent his 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st birthdays behind bars.

In April, Tampa attorney Stephen Romine presented the sort of evidence that William's initial attorneys never bothered collecting, and the judge responded by ordering William to serve only about 28 months more on probation. No adult conviction on his record, no more prison.

For the hearing, William wore a tan suit that Romine bought him. Lola sent Michael a picture of William in the ensemble, and the father marveled at his son's newfound confidence. It pleased him that the lawyer had reinforced to William his lessons about image.

William is back home now with his mother and grandmother. Lola says he is more patient, more mature. He has changed out light fixtures, cleared the overgrown flower beds and kept the grass cut, things his father showed him how to do. He works in the electronics department at Wal-Mart. He is fixing up a car in anticipation of getting his driving privileges back.

He feels a little behind in life because of prison, but he also thinks he might not be where he is mentally without it. Only after he failed did he come to understand his father's teachings.

"He was just trying to steer me right," William said. "But he was just doing it in a harsh way."

Father and son talk by phone a couple of times a week. Face-to-face visits must wait. Though prison officials moved Michael this summer to a prison much closer to his family, William can't visit while he is on probation.

They still exchange letters. After William's release, Michael, whose case remains stalled in appeals, wrote to remind his son not to take freedom for granted. William wrote back.

I appreciate your last letter and I did not get offended at all about anything you said. It's all true and I see exactly what you mean. Don't worry. I won't disappoint. Every day I wake up, I thank God for me waking up home. I fall short every day but I also refuse to keep making the same mistakes. I've grown up and it's time to man up. It's been time . . .

The words filled Michael with pride. He had been waiting to hear them from his son ever since those few hours they shared in the holding cell at the jail.

"He finally gets it."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at or (813) 226-3337.

About this story

This story is based on extensive interviews with Michael and William Thornton. After witnessing William's release from prison, Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins made multiple visits to his home in Oxford and twice traveled to prisons to interview Michael. Details provided by each man were checked against other people's recollections for accuracy.

Jenkins also interviewed their family, William's attorney, people at the ministry and a jail official. Letters and court transcripts provided additional context.

Father, son get a second chance in the most unlikely place 10/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 11, 2009 1:08am]
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