Podcast | From Breaking Bad to Redemption: The Story of Bryan Dawson

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“People Not Politics” is a podcast by Newsweek. Newsweek

"People, Not Politics" tells stories of ordinary and not so ordinary Americans who do extraordinary things. Stories from big cities, and small towns. Stories from our past and present. Stories that don't get told. But should. This is Bryan Dawson's story—in his own words.

Shorter, Alabama (Population 474)

I had a pattern in my life with girls putting me in the friend zone. I can remember the very first girl that ever put me in the friend zone and where I was the first time I saw her. I was in Mr. Dunn's Science Class at Derby Middle School. Derby is a town just South of Wichita Kansas. It was my first day of 8th grade in 1998.

She was beautiful, tall with light brown shoulder length hair. The most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I leaned over to my friend Ryan and asked, "Who is that?" Neither of us knew, but I would eventually develop the courage to ask her to the 8th grade graduation dance. What I mean by that is that I asked one of her friends to ask her if she would go with me.

She said "Yes." We went to the dance together and afterwards I told her how much I liked her and wanted to be with her. I guess you could say I professed my undying love to her. She put me in the friend zone, and that would become the pattern for the duration of my middle school and high school years.

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As far back as I can remember, I don't have a memory of my mom and dad being together. I do remember somewhere around my 1st grade year my mother joined the Army. Up to that point she had bounced around from job to job trying to support my brother and I as a single mom. Brad is 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days older than me, but we have different dads. My mom eventually got stationed in Germany and that launched a giant custody battle.My dad was a very responsible, hard-working, structured individual and the obvious best place for me would have been with my father, but the court's tendency is to place the child with the mother.

However, the way the custody battle was going this time, it looked like I was going to be with my dad. My mom took me to lunch right before the court was going to make their decision, and she basically said, "You don't want to leave your brother, do you?"

I didn't want to leave my brother in that environment without me. I went back and told the judge that I didn't want to go with my dad as I had said previously, but that I wanted to go with my mom.

I remember leaving the court house that day and looking up at my dad at the crosswalk outside the courthouse, and he looked down at me and said, "I am very disappointed in you." And that set a pattern for the rest of my life with my father. I was a disappointment.

Once we moved to Germany, my mom was with an abusive guy. We lived in an apartment above a pub just outside of Manheim, Germany. My mom and her husband Dave would drink every night and fight every night, and sometimes it would become abusive and sometimes the screaming and all those types of things would get so bad that my brother and I would a wonder if it was going to be us next.

Fortunately, we were never physically abused, but I remember wanting to protect my mom, and only being 8 years old and small, not having the inability to do so. I developed feelings of cowardice, because I wasn't able to protect my mom.

That all came to an end when she left Dave and we moved on base and started going to church. Sunday morning, Sunday night, on Wednesdays. Every time the doors were open. We began to experience a sense of belonging and that went on for about a year. There was no drinking. It was like this stability was in our lives, this calm in the middle of the storm that was my life as I look back on it.

I remember coming home from school one day. It was one of my last days of 4th grade. There was a beer sitting on the end table beside the couch. I looked at the beer and I looked at my mom and I knew we were going back into that lifestyle. And that all the peace and calm was over.

I was old enough to equate beer with pain and instability. I remember being filled with hatred and anger towards my mother, and I remember screaming at her and telling her that I hated her and that I wanted nothing to do with her and that I wanted to move back to the States and move in with my dad. And so I did.

When I moved in with my dad, we lived in Wichita Kansas. We lived there for a couple of years and my dad and step-mom, Michelle, decided to move to Derby because of the excellent schools and great athletic programs.

My mom had gotten out of the Army and moved back to Colorado Springs. I spent several months each summer with her, and the summer before my 10th grade year was no different. My brother, as I said before, is 2 years older than me. He had friends that were drinking beer, drinking liquor, smoking pot and doing that kind of stuff.

The first liquor I ever tasted was Hot Damn 100. I was the little brother of not only my big brother, but that whole group. The more I drank, the more I fit in, and the more I drank the more I was comfortable in my own skin.

I have always been very intense and very "All In" in whatever it was that I was doing, and I began to drink heavily. I was drinking tequila, whiskey, Hot Damn, that whole summer. The following summer I went back to Colorado and I began to smoke pot. And as I smoked pot, it was the same thing. I just enjoyed not being who I guess I thought I was.

When I was 16, I got my driver's license and made a fake ID on the computer. I got to the point where I could buy liquor for parties and that made me the coolest person there. I would drink to the point of blacking out once or twice a week.

I went from being a straight A student to being a C student. I stopped caring about school which was kind of interesting because up to that point where I started drinking and doing drugs, all I cared about was school. I got straight A's, and I scored off the charts on the standardized tests.

The summer between my junior and senior year, I went out to Colorado and my brother was a driver for a big-time drug dealer in Colorado Springs. His name was Casey. My brother had a driver's license and a nice truck so Casey would have Brad drive him around and they would be dropping, mostly pot, but whatever else around town and the craziest things would happen.

So I spent the summer riding around with them, just seeing Casey be this alpha male that everyone looked up to and everyone respected and he had money and had girls, and he had all these things, and I'm like, "That's what I want to do."

So at the end of that summer I went back to Kansas. Up to that point, I was excelling in football, and we had a great football team and I was really coming in to my own as a defensive end and a tight end on offense. I was torn between pouring myself into football or the party life.

I tried cocaine when I was in Colorado that previous summer, so I had begun to do more serious drugs. I started my senior year and I got about two weeks into it and one weekend I snuck out of the house and tried ecstasy with some of my friends, and a couple of those guys were actually football players on the team. I remember trying to sneak back in my house and getting caught. My dad told me I had to quit football and go to rehab or quit football and move to Colorado with my mom, but I wasn't going to continue playing football.

This is when the resentment with my dad hit its peak. He was not an emotional guy that would say "Hey what's going on Bryan, how are you feeling, how are you doing?" Instead, it was "Hey I won't tolerate it, not in this house, you ain't gonna do that, not my son."

That was his way of parenting, putting his foot down and yelling. Keep in mind, he didn't have a dad to teach him so he was doing the best he could with what he knew. He was a wonderful provider, he was at all my baseball games and all my football games and all my practices, he got up at 4:30 in the morning and went to work every day to make sure we had a roof over our head.

I decided to quit football and move back to Colorado to live with my mom which basically meant I was living on my own. I started partying full blown and started working for Casey and started selling weed and got involved in that lifestyle and then I started doing cocaine on a pretty regular basis and as I did cocaine, I realized I couldn't pay for cocaine selling weed. So I started selling cocaine.

A Knack for the Life

I had this knack and this ability to rise to the top of the drug dealer ranks of influence. I just had a knack for that life. So I started selling a little bit of coke and next thing you know I was selling a lot of coke. And I was doing a lot of coke. It got so bad I had to take Xanax to go to sleep and then I would wake up the next day, really the next evening at like 4 or 5 in the evening, and I would wake up and I would blow my nose and snort cocaine and blood would come out and my nose. And it would just keep bleeding and bleeding and when it finally began to slow down, I would do another line and start drinking, and that was how I started my days.

It got so bad I couldn't breathe out of my nose anymore. I couldn't snort cocaine, so my friend tried to introduce me to crack, and that definitely wasn't for me, and then he had me try crystal meth and that was it. Once I did crystal meth, there was no more taking Xanax to go to sleep, there was no drinking whiskey to mellow out. It was just wide open.

At this point, when I started doing meth, I already had my first felony arrest. I was arrested with a half-ounce of cocaine on December 26th 2003 and I had bonded out and eventually got probation. It didn't slow me down, I continued to use drugs, continued to party, didn't go to my probation appointments, I didn't do any of those things I was supposed to be doing.

I got to a point where I was very well known in Colorado Springs for my ability to sell drugs and other things. I remember getting a phone call from a girl, and she said "I've got some pretty serious guys that I know that want to talk to you about you partnering with them or you working with them." So I came to her apartment and I remember there were some mean looking, nefarious looking individuals. They were Hispanic guys, Mexican guys. They had handkerchiefs over their faces, but they were in suits. It was weird. I thought to myself, "Well, I'm either going to get killed or this is going to go really well."

So they sat down with me and asked me a bunch of questions and asked me what I could do for them. I think they were new to coming into Colorado Springs and they needed someone to help them. So they asked me to do that, and I did.

Not long after that, I ended up getting in a high speed chase with the cops. I had a briefcase with a sack of meth and a pistol. That ended with me getting caught and them finding everything, and me spending 4 and half months in county jail and getting probation again. This time the probation was contingent upon me completing the Salvation Army's drug rehabilitation program, so they let me out of jail and I was supposed to go check myself in to the Salvation Army.

Instead, I went and got high and I was right back to it. By that time, most of my connections went back to Mexico or had gotten arrested, so I wasn't able to make money selling drugs. So I got into property crimes.

What that looked like was we would steal 4 wheelers and motorcycles and give them to Mexicans that would take them back across the border, and they would pay me in drugs. I was supposedly the ringleader of that whole thing. I don't know how true that was, but that's the way it was in the cop's eyes. They busted one of the houses that had the motorcycles and they pressured the guy who lived there and he said that I was running all these rings.

I eventually got arrested and I ended up doing another 4 months in county jail and ended up bonding out after those 4 months, but in my time in the county jail I got my discovery and it showed who told on me.

I was out driving around, up to no good, I had been up for 4 days. We drove by the guy's house who told on me, the guy that was the main informant in my case, and the guy I was riding around with kept pumping me up saying, "We gotta go in there, we can't let him tell on you and not do anything."

So we went up to the front door and knocked on it. He opened the door and we walked in the house and I asked him why he told on me and he said, "I didn't tell on you, Bryan, I would never tell on you." I knew he was the informant in my case, so I began to beat him up really bad. The guy I was with hit him in the head with a blunt force object. It was called a black jack and it cracked his head open. There was blood everywhere and I thought he was going to die, so we grabbed a few items out of his house and left. By the time I got back to my house, there were police hiding, waiting for me outside my house and I was arrested and charged with Attempted Murder, Aggravated Robbery, and Extortion and on top of all that - this guy was state's evidence.

I ended up bonding out on this case as well, so I was out on a couple hundred thousand dollars' worth of bonds, and I was supposed to go to a court date and I ended up not going. I became a fugitive and shortly after that I became one of Colorado Springs' most wanted criminals, most wanted fugitives, and it was intense. The cops were raiding houses and setting up perimeters all throughout Colorado Springs.

Well, This Is It!

There were a couple near misses where the cops almost had me but I was able to get away from them, but they finally caught me when I was in my safe house. It was a 3rd story apartment on the corner of La Salle and Union in Colorado Springs and I'm watching the Chapelle Show, cooking bratwurst in this apartment, and I look out the window, and I see the front end of a cop car and I knew that was it. I thought to myself, "Well, this is it."

There wasn't much in the apartment, but there was an old 70's retro-recliner that was wider than the window. So I took a nylon rope, a repelling rope, and tied it to the bottom of the recliner. I hear the cops pounding on doors and kicking in doors, shouting "COLORADO SPRINGS POLICE!", making their way down to my apartment. So I kick out the window and wrap the rope around my hand and I jump out the window and the recliner sticks and wedges right in the window just the way I wanted it to.

I'm hanging there, and around both sides of this apartment building police come flooding. There are at least 40 or 50 cops made up of El Paso County Sheriff's Deputies and Colorado Springs Police Officers, and they come pouring around the side with their guns drawn.

"Get on the ground! Get on the ground, Get the F*** on the ground!" I'm thinking to myself "I don't know where else I'm going to go." And I look up and there's cops above me and cops below me, so I unwrapped the rope from my hand. I dropped 3 stories and I landed. It's a miracle I didn't get hurt from the fall. I landed and rolled and then there were two K-9 units there, with dogs barking in my face. I remember I could feel the heat from the dog's mouths as they barked thinking to myself, "Man I hope these dogs don't bite me." An officer stuck his knee in my back and cuffed me and they put me in the back of the cop car.

I remember the relief that I had as I sat in the back of that cop car because I knew it was all over. I had a sense of peace.

I end up getting into county jail where I would find out that I was facing 384 years in prison. I started to get involved with some rough groups in the jail thinking that I'm going away to prison for the rest of my life that I have to make a name for myself, I have to be tough, I have to be this guy, this prison guy.

So I start getting into a bunch of fights. I eventually ended up in Administrative Segregation, which is when you're in a concrete cell. It's about 8 ft by 12 ft and there's a metal bunk with a fire-retardant mattress, and a fire-retardant pillow and a sink that's attached to a toilet. It's a one-piece toilet-sink and a desk. That's it.

I was in there for 23 hours a day. I was there for several months, and in that time frame that I was in Administrative Segregation, I had a revelation. An "AHA!" moment. It seems silly, but it was huge.

"This is my fault, this is all my fault," I realized. Up to that point, I blamed it on my mom, on my dad, on the judges, on basically everyone but me. I blamed it on the corrupt system, all these district attorneys, you name it. I blamed everybody. Then all of a sudden, I realized this is my fault. And it was so liberating, because I realized that if my choices created these circumstances, I could make better choices that would create better circumstances. I came to the realization that my choices are what created my circumstances and not the other way around. I wasn't a victim.

From that moment forward, I made a decision that I was going to do things differently. And I did. It wasn't easy. I had habits. I had thought patterns and I had all these things that were wrong.

A few more months went by and then my Public Defender came back to me with the District Attorney's offer for a plea bargain. They were offering me a 32 year sentence. This was devastating, because to a 23 year old, 32 years and 384 years aren't much different. So I got on the phone and I called my Grandma Barb with tears in my eyes and told her that I was going away forever. She said, "I can tell there has been a huge change in your life. I don't know what it is, I can't put my finger on it, but I can tell there is something different." Up to this point, they had all cut me off. I had burned every bridge in my family, they were done with me. "We're going to get you an attorney," she told me.

My attorney was able to get me into what is called a mediation hearing. An arbitration between me and the District Attorney on the length of my sentence. It's like a used car sales. "I'll give you this" and "No, we want that."

They started at 32 years and I started at 8 years and the mediator went back and forth between the District Attorney and my lawyer and they finally came down to a 15 year sentence with a Crime-of Violence sentence enhancer.

"I don't want the sentence enhancer, I don't want to be labeled a violent criminal, I don't want to go to some hardcore prison and end up with swastikas all over my face and turn into that guy. I want to change my life. I want a chance at changing my life," I said. "Tell the District Attorney I'll give her a year if she drops the Crime-of-Violence."

I ended up getting sentenced to 16 years. They dropped the Crime-of-Violence. I went back to my cell after that mediation and knew that God had moved in my life.

I was sent to the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center. This is where you go for the Department of Corrections to assess your security threat level and medical needs.

This is a maximum-security prison and you roll up in a van and there are rolls upon rolls of razor wire. There are gun towers with armed guards in the gun towers. They've got little mirrors that look under the van to see if there are bombs on the van. It was very sobering.

I was there for a little while and they sent me to my first facility, Huerfano County Correctional Center in Walsenburg Colorado. It was a private prison. There's a lot of bad things that surround the idea of private prisons but I had nothing but a very positive experience there. It was evident that everyone there that was involved with the staff, from case managers, to the teachers. They wanted criminals to be rehabilitated and they had a lot of programs.

I got my GED while I was at Walsenburg, I started taking college classes and I became a guy that helped other guys get their GEDs. That's what I did for work. I was a tutor.

The very first person I met when I walked into Walsenburg was a guy by the name of Charles Frederick. He comes up to me and he's this big burly guy, and he says "Hey, my name's Charles, and I'm a Christian, and this is a faith pod."

In these prisons they had these pods. They're called faith pods and it was units made up of about 120 inmates, and it was dedicated to discipleship. I don't know how I landed in there, or why I landed in there, but I was there. And Charles began to tell me about Christ. Tell me about who Jesus was. Tell me about the Gospel.

"Charles, I don't want to hear that stuff, I don't care," I told him. And he just said "ok" and talked to me about other things. He met my physical needs. He gave me coffee, he gave me shorts, he gave me things that when you get in there you got nothin' but a couple pairs of underwear and a green suit—so he helped me with some of those things and he became my friend. As conversation would permit, he would tell me about Christ.

That would go on about 9 months. He got shipped to another prison, and I left that prison, and my security level dropped and I bounced around for a couple years. I ended up in Sterling Correctional Facility in Sterling, Colorado, and the first person I see? There's Charles, again.

He starts telling me about Jesus Christ again and I'm like "Man, I don't wanna hear this stuff." We're there for a little bit and he goes, "You've got parole coming up in a couple years. It would be good for you to have some certificates to show the parole board."

I'm like "ok" and he says "Well, I'm the Chaplain's assistant, I can get you in some programs." I respond with "Yea, yea ok, sign me up." He signs me up and they end up being faith-based programs

The very first program I went into was a 'come as you are, we love everybody—Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, whatever. Just come as you are.' I went there, and it was ok, but I experienced fellowship, and I met other Christians that were like Charles who were true genuine Christians who lived this out. They didn't just say they were Christians. They lived it. And you could see the wisdom in things that they had, and I was attracted to that.

That class was over and then Charles got me into another program called the Truth Project. But when I got in there, it was not "come as you are." It was "this is what the Bible says" and I didn't like that. We would watch a video for an hour and have table discussion, and at the table discussion I would argue with everyone there and tell them how stupid they were for believing these things. I almost got into a couple fights with those guys

About 3 weeks into it we were walking back to the unit and Charles asked me, "Bryan, why don't you just give him a chance?" I had been asked that question before and fought it. And for whatever reason, I said, "ok, Charles." I went back to my cell that night and I prayed, "Ok, God, if I need to believe these things to have a relationship with you, give me some kind of a sign."

I went to bed that night and I remember being in a really deep sleep and I had a nightmare, and in that nightmare I fell off of a cliff and I woke up startled out of a nightmare. I looked around and it was really dark in the cells.

We're allowed to have digital clocks, and the digital clock with the red numbers in the cell said "3:16." The only Bible verse I'd ever known as a kid was John 3:16, and if you know John 3:16, it answers the question that I asked Him.

I tried to go back to sleep and brush it off but I looked back at the clock and I felt like it was '3:16' for like 30 minutes. And I'm like "Ok, maybe there's something to this." It was a Sunday morning at 3:16 so I got up and I went to the church services they offered in the prison.

I went and found my friend Ramonde. I always had this idea in my head that Christians were weak and my friend Ramonde was a big, black, former gang-member that had become a Christian. There was nothin' soft or weak about this guy, and I'm like ok, I'll go with him.

And I'm sittin' in the very back row, in the very far side as he goes through the sermon and at the end of the sermon the pastor does what he calls an invitation. I look at Ramonde and I say "What's an 'invitation'?" and he goes "uhm." He didn't say, "It's where you go make a decision for Christ." He didn't say any of that stuff.

He said, "If you've got somethin' in your life that's hindering your relationship with God, you can go up there and pray with that man about it." So I went up there and I prayed with Chaplain Davis.

He's a hard man. A callused man. A cowboy. A man's man. He's a prison chaplain. He doesn't do hugs. He doesn't do any of those kind of things. And he grabs my hand to pray and I can feel the calluses on his hand and he slaps me on the shoulder with his other hand and he says "How can I pray for you?"

I told him, "Look, you know, I'm not here to make any decisions. I just need you to pray that God would remove this callus from my heart because it's hardened and it's angry, and it's angry towards Christians, so I want Him to soften my heart so that the truth can come in."

And Chaplain Davis prayed that. I remember looking up after we were done praying and he's in front of 130 inmates with tears pouring down his face and I knew something was very real about this. I didn't know how to describe it, but it was very real, and I would later find out that Chaplain Davis and Charles had been praying for me for about a year and a half that I would get saved---and from that moment forward I began to read my Bible. I read my Bible every single day. I would get up and read my Bible. I was at every single church service that they offered, any faith-based program they had in that prison, I was there.

There was a huge change. I went from telling these people they were stupid for believing what they did to absolutely believing it—basically overnight. And following that up with my behavior, following the change of heart that I had.

You Got a Request From a Girl

My friends all had pen-pals that they were writing when they were in prison. So I prayed and said, "Alright God, I'd like to have a pen-pal." And I got on the phone with my mom and she was running a Facebook page for me. She says, "You got a friend request from a girl."

I'm like, "Ok, cool, who is it?" And she says, "Do you know a girl named uh, Kristina Ewen?" And I said, "Yeaaa! Uhhh yea, I know Kristina Ewen, that's uhm, that's the girl I was head-over-heels in love with throughout middle school and high school. She was the first girl ever to 'friend zone' me all the way back in 8th grade. Did you tell her I was in prison?" "Yea I told her you were in prison. She doesn't care. She wants to write you."

I'm like "Well, that's crazy." So I got her address, and everything we did, all our correspondence, was based on Christ and what God was doing in our lives and that was it. That went on for several months and I just knew that this was too crazy for it not to be God lining this up for something bigger. But I was scared to death because she's rejected me so many times in the past and I had to write a letter and I sat down and wrote this letter and said, "Llook, you know I just feel like this is kinda something that's maybe meant to be and I know it's asking a lot of you that maybe we could ride this out together and get married when I get out. This is meant for something more."

And I get the letter back and I remember hearing it at mail call and seeing that the letter was from Kristina, knowing that the answer was going to be inside of that envelope and I opened it and pulled out the letter and began to read it. And in the very first paragraph she said "Bryan, I've been thinkin' the exact same things and I know God wants me to be with you and that I'm supposed to be here for you through this time. That we're meant to be together." I remember reading that sitting in prison and I could have floated up the steps to go back to my cell. It was amazing.

I put in for a halfway house about 6 months after that. I ended up getting accepted into that program—my very first time putting in for a halfway house which almost never happens with the severity of my sentence and the size and scope of my sentence.

I got out my very first time putting in, I got out of prison and into the Peer 1 Program on August 7th of 2012. It was a very tough 2 years, but I graduated and Kristina was there for the graduation and the first visit I was allowed to go on actually before I graduated—Kristina and I got married. We eloped, I guess you could say. We got married at my grandma's house on July 13th of 2013, and a pastor that used to come into the prisons did my marriage ceremony. It was him and his wife and my grandma. They were the only ones at the wedding, and my mom was on speaker phone.

My wife and I now have 3 daughters plus my stepson, Brennan, who is an absolute stud. A brilliant, smart kid, he does very well in sports. And my girls. The 3 year old is Gracie, the 2 year old is Reagan, and our 1 year old is Abigail, and we have another one on the way.

And this is kind of a cool caveat to the story. I've got a little piece of property with a little house, the wife of my dreams and beautiful children—4 beautiful children about to be 5. And I just moved my mom. She has a camper, and I moved it onto my property and my mom, who I had all that resentment and animosity towards, now lives on my property. She's 'Mee-maw' to the kids and she got saved about 2 years ago. She's a completely different person.

I could not have known sitting in jail, you know, 5-6-7 years ago (whatever it was) and said, "Ok, in 5 or 10 years this is what I want, and ever think it would be what it is now."