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City Folk

Half Life

Bruce White now works with the same courts that once convicted him

Photo: Andrew Windham, License: N/A

Andrew Windham


Bruce White’s first life lasted about four decades. From his initiation into drunkenness in the fourth grade to his last shot of dope, in prison, it was a disaster for White and deadly for many sucked into his violent and toxic orbit.

“The scariest man I ever prosecuted,” says Jill Savage, a veteran Baltimore County prosecutor who sent the Hamilton resident away on weapons charges in 1998. She remembers a vivid day when Bruce barked vulgarities at the diminutive state’s attorney while being led away to prison. “A wretched human being.”

White’s second act began in earnest in 2005, weeping in front of a judge at a parole hearing, hands in the air like a man surrendering to everything in the world that was bigger than him. He’d served a little less than half of a 20-year sentence, eight and a half years in which no one visited.

People who now encounter the former junkie and career criminal—“I preyed on my family, my friends, my neighbors”—tend to get help, not hurt. And he and Jill Savage have become the unlikeliest of friends.

The turnabout “is the most opposite extreme I can think of,” says Savage, who keeps a picture of White at his Baltimore City Community College graduation on her desk. And White—sentenced from a wheelchair after being shot by a SWAT officer during his arrest—now gets invited to parties honoring judges he once appeared before in shackles.

The difference?

The flip side of the dope coin: recovery.

Getting high had dictated every decision White made from the time he became addicted to barbiturates at 14. After going off drugs cold turkey in prison a couple of years before his parole, a series of events led White, still wearing his blue Department of Corrections shirt, to the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous. The 12-step program is the only place he has ever felt at ease.

After staying clean for half-a-dozen years or so, the kid raised upper-middle class in Lutherville came to the attention of Gaudenzia, a detox and residential treatment center headquartered in the inner city near Park Heights Avenue.

It was 2009 and Gaudenzia was looking for a court liaison, someone who knew the streets and the courts, a person who cleaned up nice and could speak with candor and intelligence on behalf of addicts about to be sent to prison.

White got the job. It pays about the same as a rookie high school teacher might make. It comes with benefits. He wears a suit and tie and gives judges throughout the metropolitan area his honest opinion about whether jail or treatment would best serve a defendant and the general public. His opinion isn’t always accepted, but it’s respected.

Sometimes he testifies that a person isn’t ready for treatment and needs to figure out their problems behind bars. Sometimes the addict chooses prison over treatment.

“I never had jobs, I did jobs,” says White, who earned his BCCC degree in addictions counseling after working at Gaudenzia for about a year. “After I got out of prison and started working, I began filing my taxes. I got a letter from Social Security and it said that my entire life I had only made $3,500.”

That was about what White would spend on one of his many long and lost weekends to meet up with bad guys in New York or stay home and shoot dope in a Reisterstown Road motel.

“I never thought I could be anything. My place in life was to be a junkie, and I was OK with that,” says White. “But [in recovery] I changed everything.

“I’m a kind, loving, caring gentleman today. I pride myself on being a gentleman. When lawyers and judges see me in my suit and tie, they ain’t looking at my tattoos; they’re not looking at my bullet wounds.

“They’re looking at this new guy—Mr. White. They say to people, ‘He’s an expert. . . do what he says.’”

The courts, observes Jill Savage, have become weary of hearing that addiction is a disease, often viewing it as an excuse for despicable, unchanged behavior. Bruce White is the rare example of a once-violent drug addict who became a citizen. He calls it a miracle and credits God.

White had a best friend—a guy he loved—in the 1970s at the Baltimore Experimental High School, which he attended (and terrorized) when no other school would take him.

The friend, whom he introduced to narcotics, was Stuart “Whitney” Denham, one of many former associates of White’s long dead from an overdose. Denham’s brother Schuyler is a retired Baltimore City police officer now living in Colorado.

Told that a story was being written about Bruce White, Schuyler asks: “Have you found anyone who has anything nice to say about him?”

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