TAMPA — When the long nightmare ended in 2016, a few months shy of his 50th birthday, he walked out of the jailhouse in West Virginia. He saw his mother's face.
"Thank you, Jesus," Gladys Gardner said.
Not long after that, Jimmie C. Gardner traveled to Tampa, where he grew up and where he still had family.
And about the first place he went was the storied Belmont Heights Little League complex in east Tampa, where Gardner had pitched and starred nearly 40 years earlier.
"I just walked on the field, out to the mound, just stood there and reminisced," Gardner said. "Took some pictures. This is where it began. That was the time of my life."
He has a lot of life left to live.
"A whole lot," Gardner said.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times
• • •
Saturday at the USF baseball stadium, there will be an all-star softball game to salute and raise money for the Belmont Heights Little League, which in the 1970s and 1980s produced Little League World Series teams and a stunning procession of talent, including major-leaguers Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Derek Bell and Carl Everett.
A lot of them will reunite today, to hit in a home run derby, play the game, swap stories, laugh and maybe cry.
Jimmie C. will be there.
"I haven't seen some of these guys in 30, 40 years," Gardner said. "I'm looking forward to this. I thought about Belmont Heights almost every day in prison."
On April 1, 2016, Jimmie C. Gardner was released from the West Virginia prison system after serving nearly 27 years of a 110-year sentence — for a crime he did not commit.
His wrongful conviction on sexual assault and robbery charges was underwritten by what was later found to be fraudulent testimony and evidence from a police forensic scientist, the Washington Post reported.
Old friends can't wait to see Gardner. The last thing some remember is him getting drafted by the Cubs, another inner-city kid going off to chase a dream. Then he disappeared.
"He's a great friend," said Sammy Jackson, who played Little League with Gardner. "I can't imagine what Jimmie C. went through. But Jimmie C. is free. Jimmie C. is free."
"Think of what he lost," said Floyd Youmans, a former Belmont Heights star who pitched in the major leagues. "All I kept thinking is, we all had our shot. Jimmie C. had his taken away."
"Can you imagine being locked up for 27 years for something you didn't do?" said Lonnie Benniefield, a friend and teammate of Gardner's at Belmont Heights and in high school at Tampa Bay Tech. "I'd be bitter. I'd be angry. But the thing about Jimmie C. that amazes you is that he isn't."
"In the beginning, I was very bitter," said Gardner, who turned 51 last week. "But I realized the bitterness and anger created all sorts of toxins within me. By the grace of God, I was able to become a better person."
• • •
"Jimmie C., he could throw that ball," Youmans said. "He threw gas."
Gardner was asked what his middle initial stands for.
"It's just a letter," he said.
But in high school, he was playful. A young sports writer once asked Gardner what the 'C' stood for.
" 'C' is for cool," Jimmie C. said.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times
He was a confident kid, 6 feet 3 inches, with a right arm that seemed destined for great things. He was drafted in the 12th round by the Chicago Cubs in 1984. Gardner remembers rookie league ball in 1984 in Pikeville, Ky. In 1986 he pitched against another confident kid in the Cubs system: future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.
"He said he was going to strike me out, and I said I was going to strike him out," Gardner said, laughing. "We both made outs, but we didn't strike out. We grounded out."
In the summer of 1987, while Gardner was with a Cubs farm team in Charleston, W.Va., he and several other players were questioned and fingerprinted after a woman was sexually assaulted and her mother was beaten. No one was charged at the time.
Gardner's professional baseball career lasted four seasons. He never came close to the majors. Later in 1987, he was arrested in Tampa and subsequently convicted of robbery with a firearm. He served time in Florida but in 1989 was returned to West Virginia and charged with sexual assault and robbery stemming from the 1987 case in Charleston.
The forensic expert in the case, Fred Zain, testified that Gardner's DNA and fingerprints were found at the crime scene.
Gardner was convicted. And sentenced to 110 years. It was February 1990. Jimmie C. Gardner was 23 years old.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times
"I always maintained my innocence," he said.
In 1993, media reports said, the West Virginia Supreme Court found that Zain had a history of falsifying evidence. More than 140 people who had been convicted and were in prison, including Gardner, were entitled to hearings.
"I thought I was going home," Gardner said.
He received no hearing. Gardner spent 23 more years in prison.
"I was in legal purgatory," he said.
Gardner took up his own case with the help from outside, including his younger brother, Eric.
"We had so many doors slammed in our face," Eric said. "It was basically 'Oh, your brother did it.' There was nothing anyone could or would do.
"But my brother is my superhero. I never saw him get irate. He would give all praise to God to see it through. Any time a storm came, he showed us sunshine."
• • •
"It wasn't easy," Jimmie C. said. "You could die any day. I saw violence all the time. I had to fight early on. I used to pray to God, 'Please don't let me get killed in here or kill anybody.' I saw a lot of friends commit suicide. They just gave up."
Gardner did not. He went to school. He said he earned a four-year college degree and a pair of two-year degrees while in prison, in business management, general studies and restaurant management.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Many of his Belmont Heights friends lost touch with him. But some didn't, like Shawn Frazier, a childhood friend who played outfield in the Atlanta Braves organization.
"I just knew Jimmie C. couldn't have done this," Frazier said. "He wasn't that person."
And then it happened. In 2013, federal Judge Joseph Goodwin agreed to review Gardner's appeal. The appeal process went on for three years. The Washington Post reported that Goodwin eventually cited the holes in the case against Gardner and called the long delay in hearing Gardner's appeal a "miscarriage of justice." Gardner's conviction was overturned. He was released.
"But I had been free long before I was freed," Gardner said. "I was incarcerated physically all those years, but I was free mentally and spiritually."
• • •
Former Belmont Heights players can't wait to see Jimmie C. They also can't fathom what the man has been through.
"Growing up in that community, you grow up with the realization that it can happen," said Tampa Catholic High baseball coach Ty Griffin, who played on Belmont Heights Little League World Series teams in 1980 and 1981. "What makes this so incredible is it happened to a guy I watched play in Belmont Heights, who I played against."
Gardner has filed a civil suit in West Virginia seeking money from the state for his wrongful incarceration.
"No amount of money will ever bring back the years I lost," he said. "But West Virginia should be accountable for this egregious injustice."
Gardner, who lives in Virginia, near Washington, is trying to reconnect with his only child, Tiffany, who was 3 when he went to prison. She is now 31.
Gardner is now an advocate for the wrongfully imprisoned and a motivational speaker.
"I go to churches. I talk with at-risk youths," he said. "I've spoken at universities … Georgetown, NYU. I go to prisons. I talk to guys. They listen to my story, what I went through, and I let them know to never give up. I speak all over the United States."
"Matter of fact, I'm going to Oxford, in England, to talk about wrongful convictions. Jimmie C. going to Oxford. That's crazy."
Here is where he went the other night in Tampa Bay with his friend Sammy Jackson: the batting cages. Gardner wanted to practice for the home run derby and softball game today.
"I was a Hall of Famer in prison," he said, grinning. "I hit hundreds of softball home runs."
There will be home runs today, and hugs, and probably tears.
Jimmie C. is free.
Times Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.