Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Man falsely imprisoned for 27 years returns to his Tampa field of dreams

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.

•••

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.

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.

"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.

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."

Gardner laughed.

"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.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or 813-731-8029. Follow >@mjfennelly.>

     
       
Comments
Rays’ trade silence likely a short-lived phenomenon

Rays’ trade silence likely a short-lived phenomenon

LAKE BUENA VISTA — There were a lot of reasons the Rays didn’t start the process of trading some of their bigger-name, higher-paid players at last week’s winter meetings.Most obvious was them not finding the just-right deal to move closer Alex Colome...
Published: 12/16/17
No big deal for Rays at winter meetings, but it’s still coming

No big deal for Rays at winter meetings, but it’s still coming

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Here’s the one thing we definitely know:Rays officials headed home from the winter meetings and back across I-4 Thursday without making deals to trade any of their bigger-name, higher-paid players. Not closer Alex Colome, not third...
Published: 12/14/17
Are Tampa Bay Rays going to make a major deal involving Alex Colome, others? Well …

Are Tampa Bay Rays going to make a major deal involving Alex Colome, others? Well …

UPDATE, 4:02: It doesn't sound like the Rays and Cardinals will be making a deal today, Derrick Goold writing for the St. Louis Post Dispatch that Cardinals execs "leave the Walt Disney Dolphin resort with good feel for what Tampa Bay would be willin...
Published: 12/14/17
Rays re-sign pitcher Jonny Venters, among 13 invited to spring training

Rays re-sign pitcher Jonny Venters, among 13 invited to spring training

LAKE BUENA VISTA — LHP Jonny Venters got as far as Triple A in September. Now the former All-Star is positioned to make it all the way back to the majors for the first time since 2012, re-signing with the Rays and headlining Thursday’s announcement o...
Published: 12/14/17
Veteran Jonny Venters, prospect Joe McCarthy among 13 Tampa Bay Rays spring invitees

Veteran Jonny Venters, prospect Joe McCarthy among 13 Tampa Bay Rays spring invitees

Inspiring veteran LHP Jonny Venters and intriguing prospect 1B/OF Joe McCarthy are among 13 players invited to major-league spring training camp with the Rays.Others coming as a result of signing minor-league contracts with invites are: RHP R.J. Alan...
Published: 12/14/17
Tampa Bay Rays lose RHP Burch Smith in Rule 5 draft, keep Nick Ciuffo

Tampa Bay Rays lose RHP Burch Smith in Rule 5 draft, keep Nick Ciuffo

The Rays lost RHP Burch Smith in Thursday's Rule 5 draft but were happy to see him get an opportunity in Kansas City.They also were pleased to hang on to C Nick Ciuffo, who was left exposed but not selected.Smith, 27, was acquired from the Padres as ...
Published: 12/14/17
Live from Disney: Winter meetings update, day 4

Live from Disney: Winter meetings update, day 4

UPDATE, 11:09: RHP Steve Cishek, who was a very effective addition to the Rays pen last season, has reunited with pitching coach Jim Hickey, agreeing to a deal with the Cubs.UPDATE, 10:40: Like most teams, Rays officials are heading out of the meetin...
Published: 12/14/17
Disney-Fox deal gives ESPN control of local cable rights to Rays, Lightning games

Disney-Fox deal gives ESPN control of local cable rights to Rays, Lightning games

As part of its deal to buy a massive package of 21st Century Fox assets, Disney will acquire Fox Sports Regional Networks, which control the local cable rights to a slew of professional teams, including the Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Lightning.Assu...
Published: 12/14/17
Tampa Bay Rays making progress in trade talks

Tampa Bay Rays making progress in trade talks

Without getting into specifics – especially the who and the where – Rays officials are for the first time talking optimistically about making a trade before the winter meetings end Thursday.Speaking at around 5:15, senior VP Chaim Bloom s...
Published: 12/13/17

Winter meetings journal: Rays trade for money to sign top international free agent

LAKE BUENA VISTA — While most of the business conducted at the meetings impacts the big-league team one way or another, the Rays are working to finalize a move they hope pays off big sometime in the 2020s.In trading Wednesday to acquire $1 million in...
Published: 12/13/17