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Where I Come From

Heroes

On Jan. 3, 2011, my father—rather, the man I might have picked for the job if I’d had any say in the matter—will go to prison. We don’t select our parents, but we do choose our heroes, so it’s terribly disorienting, like watching part of your moral universe implode, when they fall.

I met Vic Frierson when I was 14 years old during an audition for a local performing arts group called the P.E.A.C.E. (Partners Educating Artists, Composers, and Entertainers) Project. Mr. Vic, as I still call him, was a singer/songwriter and community organizer with a gentle Kentucky drawl. He was incredibly well-rounded. In his 30s he had a recording contract, but he worked in child and family services most of his career. P.E.A.C.E. brought those two passions together, training kids with talent in the performing arts to think critically about the media they consumed and produced, especially as it related to violence.

I gained a lot during my year with P.E.A.C.E., but all of that was just one small footnote in my relationship with Mr. Vic. He’s 6 feet 8 inches tall, with an almost Shakespearean bearing. The man is intelligent, refined, fun-loving, and debonair. A black man who knows his own worth: It was a great model for me to have in those early teenage years and beyond, so I kept in touch, and so did he. Over the years, we argued about hip-hop music. He taught me how to drive, lent me money when I needed it, and treated me like the son he never had. On Father’s Day, brunch was on me.

So in June, I was stunned to read in The Daily Record that a man with his name was accused of diverting $233,000 from the Park Heights Community Health Alliance, a group for which he served as executive director, for his personal use. That morning, I knew nothing of his guilt or innocence. My first concern was that the Record didn’t appear to make any attempt to get his side of the story, but when I called him, the first thing he wanted me to know was, as he said, “I did it.

“I don’t know if you know this about me, Lionel,” he told me during a two-hour phone call a few weeks ago, “but I don’t do anything halfway.” Five years ago, what started as a heady bit of beginner’s luck on a video slots machine grew into late nights at casino blackjack tables and a gambling addiction. Things might not have turned out so badly if Mr. Vic had simply lost his own money, but unfettered access to a PHCHA credit card and bank account spelled disaster. He kept telling himself that, with time, he would pay it all back, but last year, when his position was eliminated—without prejudice, he says, and strictly for budgetary reasons—he knew he’d be asked about accounting discrepancies. He was, and he confessed and apologized for what he did. By his reckoning, he lost approximately $75,000 of PHCHA’s funds. Mr. Vic disputes the higher figure in the federal prosecutor’s allegations but says he didn’t have the resources to hire forensic accountants who could prove otherwise. Wanting to make amends and put this behind him, he pleaded guilty.

I spoke at his sentencing hearing, wearing a blue suit, one of my better shirts, and a very collegiate-looking tie. I introduced myself as one of the hundreds of young people Mr. Vic had helped. He must be held accountable, I told the judge, but it was only right to consider the full scope of his life—founding his own nonprofit to help kids; linking often-overlooked residents to city resources during many years as a civil servant; and taking knuckleheads like me to Ravens games. I said, “I stand before you today not asking for mercy, your honor. I just ask for fairness”—fairness against the backdrop of decades, not a lamentable few years.

The judge ordered 27 months, 12 of them to be served under house arrest, plus full restitution. Was that too much time? If I were one of PHCHA’s clients, would I want him to suffer longer? I honestly don’t know. After the hearing, I just sat and cried.

The judge was impressed by Mr. Vic’s life of leadership and service, but he cited the poor example his crime had set for mentees like me as one reason he couldn’t impose a lighter sentence. So, ironically, my testimony was used against him. I tried to paint the bigger picture, but the judge saw things differently, and that’s the way it’ll be from now on: unrecognizably different. My friend has been branded: felon, criminal, thief. As long as he lives, these words will make much of the rest of his life and character irrelevant. Mr. Vic brought this on himself. I know this. But he’s a beautiful man, and I hope that one day, strangers will see more than his ugly new scar.

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