"I love the snow. Wintertime is my favorite time of year. It was just beautiful, standing around the rocks, standing by the edge.”
“HOW COME YOU HAVEN’T had a license in 20 years?” the driving test proctor asked.
Jacques told her his story. He had been telling it a lot.
He was nervous behind the wheel again, but his older sister Linda had let him take her car around the block a time or two for practice. It felt strange. All the buttons on the dashboard surprised him whenever they lit up.
Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.
Just like riding a bike, he kept saying to himself. But the parallel parking wasn’t.
“Let’s just go back,” the proctor told him. “You’ll do just fine.”
It was the written portion of the test, infamous in Illinois, that was the most difficult.
“The signs were hard!” Jacques says.
He passed, and Linda let him drive back home.
ANOTHER SISTER Candida, the youngest of six siblings, flew in from California after the New Year, a few months after Jacques’ release. She had faithfully visited him about twice a year during his incarceration — one time unsuccessfully, on his birthday when the prison suddenly went on lockdown.
“It’s his birthday!” Candida had cried in the parking lot. “And he’s in this crappy-ass place! I came all the way from California. I’m right here, and I can’t get in.”
So it took some getting used to, seeing him in the flesh. No pat-downs, no long wait.
Candida came to Chicago to take Jacques on a trip across the country. They called it their “Donnie and Marie Adventure.” They were close like the Osmonds, and people told Candida that she looked just like Marie.
Jacques felt ready for the undertaking, eager for some open air away from the cramped apartment he shared with his mother.
The adventure started at the airport. Jacques had never been on a plane before.
“He was very nervous,” Candida remembers.
Jacques sat next to the window, headphones on, eyes shut.
He didn’t ask for anything to drink.
“You’re not going to get anything to drink?” Candida asked him.
“No, I don’t want to get up.”
He chewed his gum to stay calm, a habit not unique to the plane ride.
“His gum is his thing,” his sister Rose attests. “He just loves gum. In prison they couldn’t have gum.”
For the next three months of the Donnie and Marie Adventure, he chewed his gum almost nonstop.
THE FIRST STOP for Jacques and Candida was the Grand Canyon. It was snowing, magnificently.
Jacques couldn’t believe the cactus everywhere. It seemed more like a movie than real life.
“He loved it,” Candida says.
Las Vegas was another story. Jacques didn’t gamble, and the crowds put him on edge. He didn’t feel secure. He was overwhelmed, paranoid.
Even more of a damper was put on the trip when Jacques left his cell phone in a taxicab. A family friend, his grade school sweetheart, had given him the phone soon after his release.
“You’re gonna need this,” she had said, putting him on her plan and even upgrading him.
They called every Las Vegas cab company they could find, but had no luck recovering the phone.
"I was furious because I have no phone," Jacques remembers. "I lost my contacts and everybody that I called.”
He also lost pictures of the new memories he had created since being out.
But a chance meeting and photo opportunity with famed Chicago Bears player Brian Urlacher cheered him up.
“Hey, Brian!” Jacques casually said to the linebacker as he passed by the taxi stand they were waiting in outside Caesar’s Palace.
His sister didn’t see him.
“Brian? Who’s Brian? Who do you know named Brian?”
“Brian Urlacher?!” Candida jumped out of the line to find him.
The night of his release, media cameras had captured shots of Chicago Bears apparel sported by
Jacques and his sons. Jacques was draped in a Chicago Bears jacket. One of his sons wore an Urlacher jersey, and the other gave his dad a Walter Payton jersey as a homecoming present. Shortly thereafter, a Chicago TV sports program hosted Urlacher and asked him about having that kind of impact. He was blown away.
Candida had to find him for her brother.
“You go this way! I’ll go this way!” she said.
Jacques followed orders, but was wary of separating.
They were told he went inside a tent in the hotel courtyard where a Vaudeville-style show “Absinthe” was to go on.
Candida bought tickets for the show. They got inside, but couldn’t spot him. Finally, an usher helped them out.
“I’m not supposed to tell you, but there’s a gentleman meeting that description right behind you,” the usher whispered.
Candida approached Urlacher and apologized for interrupting. Would he let them have a photo?
Absolutely. They even stayed for the show.
THE FINAL LEG of Donnie and Marie’s adventure was back in Dana Point, Calif., where Candida lived. She took him to Hollywood and at a Venice Beach souvenir shop, Jacques bought a trophy, shaped like an Oscar, with the words “World’s Best Lawyer.” For Jane.
Candida welcomed Jacques into her church in nearby Laguna Beach. The parishioners of Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church had been praying for Jacques over the past year as he neared his unexpected release, and they were excited to meet him.
“They were expecting a thug,” Candida remembers. “A lot of them have never encountered somebody like Jacques. They were expecting what you see on TV. So when they saw him, they thought he was well-mannered, polite, well-spoken. They were very amazed.”
The bishop, visiting one Sunday, brought him up to the altar to join her in the final blessing.
Jacques was touched, almost in tears.
Candida’s priest was able to pull some strings and get Jacques a brief meeting with Father Greg
Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homebody Industries, a program that works with former gang members, helping them break free and move on with their lives. Candida had bought him a signed copy of Father Greg’s book, “Tattoos on the Heart,” in which the priest recounts his two decades working with homies in Los Angeles.
Jacques, a former Latin King, passed down to him by his father, had left the gang life behind in prison. A newfound faith like Jacques’ was the only way the Kings would let someone go; otherwise, an exit could be dangerous.
He was able to leave without incident. But back on the outside, ghosts from his past tried to catch up with him.
“Hey, what’s up, Brother? Amor!” they would say to him back in Chicago.
“Don’t say that to me, man,” Jacques answered, shaking his head. He was through with gang love.
Turned out their tour guide at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles had the same kind of story.
“Before I was this thug and gang member,” he told them. “Now I’m the assistant director of this place. I used to have gang members in my cell phone. Now I have the mayor of L.A. in my cell phone.”
A new kind of rank, Jacques thought, picturing himself. One that reforms, redeems.
THE ADVENTURE HAD LASTED THREE MONTHS when both brother and sister knew it was time to go. Candida needed to get back to her life, and Jacques missed being home in Chicago. The two had been practically inseparable, except for a men’s Bible study here and there that Jacques would attend with church folks.
Jacques made the trip back alone. At the airport, Candida talked to an agent to see if she could accompany him through the concourse before saying goodbye.
“He really doesn’t want to be by himself,” she explained. “Can I go through security with him?”
Candida got to see him off at the gate. As he walked away from her on to the jetway, she envisioned herself walking away from him, as she had many times, painfully, after many prison visits.
“Every time we would go visit him, I hated leaving,” Candida says. “We would go up the stairs. He wouldn’t leave until he couldn’t see us anymore.”
Candida would always turn around and look back at him. Jacques would be there, waving and saying “Bye! I love you!” with a wide grin stretched across his face.
From the jetway, Jacques turned around, looked back at his sister and waved. She waved back and watched until she could no longer see him.