Michael Blackwell remembers standing in a federal courtroom and hearing the jury’s verdict of “not guilty” read.
He and an accomplice were tried and acquitted for the September 1975 bank robbery at the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Clearwater.
“One thing I hated was robbing the bank, getting away with the money, but having to turn around and give it to the attorney,” Blackwell said. “It was like I was robbing the bank for him.”
He never left the courtroom, though. U.S. Marshals immediately detained him for the Aiken bank robbery in March 1975.
Blackwell, who was the only person charged in that robbery, was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison in February 1976.
“I talked to all the members of our little gang,” he said. “You don’t tell on nobody. I’m the only one that’s gone to prison, served my time. I had all opportunity to tell on everybody else but wouldn’t do it.”
While he was in prison, though, one of the group members struck a plea deal with prosecutors, according to Blackwell.
“They came to him with a deal, so not only would he tell his story of that particular incident, to keep him from going to prison anywhere else, he went on and told about the deals he was involved with in Aiken,” he said.
Blackwell pleaded guilty to the Beech Island bank robbery and received an additional 15 years in prison. Four other accomplices also pleaded guilty.
Blackwell served the majority of his sentence at the federal penitentiary in Terra Haute, Ind.
‘I’d be scared in hell to go back’
Blackwell said prison reminded him of the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“That’s the realization of life in prison,” he said. “Today, it’s worse than that because you’ve got so many ethnic groups in there.”
The prison population was deeply divided along racial and ethnic lines, he said.
“Everybody’s got a click with their nationality,” he said. “It’s gang against gang, black against white, blacks against skinheads. It’s scary. Even though I’m a veteran in it, I’d be scared in hell to go back in the penitentiary with the climate that’s in there now.”
Blackwell said “the big thing” was bullying.
“I was a big guy, about 250 pounds,” he said.
A “small” guy was typically seen as a “homosexual” or a “punk,” according to Blackwell.
“Even if you hung around nobody but people from Carolina, even your own brotherhood would probably take advantage of you because you’re so small,” he said. “That’s the type of stuff those guys had to go up against.”
Blackwell recalled how a friend of his in prison, Larry, was murdered. One day, Blackwell and Larry were standing at a window in the prison watching the inmates in a corridor and hollering at some of them, he said. Blackwell was part of the work detail and had to leave.
“By the time I got up to the second floor, the deuces went off – that’s the alarm telling you something happened,” he said. “Man, Larry was stabbed right there in the window. One of them skinheads came by and shanked him.”
Blackwell said Larry was killed because he accidentally stepped on a foot of one of the “skinheads.” He said Larry apologized.
“By the skinhead killing Larry, it was an all-out war,” Blackwell said. “You had maybe a couple skinheads got killed. The boys from Ohio, they went after the skinheads. And that’s the way it is. I’m telling you, it’s hell, man. It’s hell.”
Blackwell said he came close to a “serious” confrontation with an inmate who came into the TV room one day and changed the channel. Blackwell changed it back, and the two continued this for several minutes before Blackwell left. The inmate later confronted him.
“I said, ‘What did I do? I didn’t do nothing,’” Blackwell told the inmate. “We were all watching and you came in there and turned the TV. Now, here you are … and you’re gonna hurt me for what you have done? I ain’t did nothing. You want to hurt me, go ahead on. But I did nothing to you.’”
Blackwell said the inmate turned and went back to his cell.
“I was using mind over matter,” he said, adding that the inmate later apologized. “From that day forward, me and him were the best of friends.”
Blackwell said he also became close with his cellmate, James.
“He wasn’t about too much of nothing as far as being with your homies,” he said. “I was fortunate that the Lord led me to this guy, because all this guy did was read the dictionary and read the Bible. He didn’t even go out of the cell hardly.”
Blackwell said he, too, began reading the dictionary and the Bible, and rarely left his cell.
“Keeping to yourself, that’s the best way to be there,” he said. “Don’t be getting up in one of them gangs.”
‘It’s like you lost something, and you found it again’
For the first two years of his prison sentence, Blackwell said he was “mad at the world.”
“I wouldn’t do work, I wouldn’t go to school – I wouldn’t do nothing,” he said. “One day, I was laying on my bottom bunk, I was looking up at the bottom of that other bunk. … I thought about it and said, ‘Michael, you keep the attitude you’ve got, keep going the way you’re going, you can call this here home for the rest of your life.’ I thought about that and said, ‘No, I don’t want this to be home.’”
Throughout the rest of his sentence, Blackwell got his GED and was able to earn an associate degree in accounting, he said. He also worked various jobs around the prison, starting in the kitchen, then going to the factory where they made towels, blankets and rags that were sent to government entities.
He later worked his way up to office work and became the “procurement guy.”
It was “buying stuff and making sure the stuff was getting to where it’s supposed to,” he said. “Everything I did, I had to give it to the manager at the end of the day.”
Blackwell was eligible for parole in 1985 after he completed a month in a halfway house near Atlanta, which he described as “worse than a penitentiary.”
“You have so many people that go to the halfway house that end up revoking their parole simply because they went to the halfway house,” he said. “Because of the staff there, the arrogance of them and how unconcerned they are about them.”
Blackwell said inmates have to go out and look for jobs each day, and must be back at the house by a certain time. He almost got in trouble for missing curfew on one occasion.
“I’m out in the streets trying to learn the bus system,” he said. “You’re on a time clock, and if you’re late, they’ll send you back to the penitentiary. It’s just pathetic and it’s sickening. If anybody is reading this, if you’ve got an opportunity to go in the halfway house, keep your butt in the penitentiary.”
Finding a job as an ex-con proved to be difficult, Blackwell said. After getting out of the halfway house, he worked with a brother’s painting and contracting business for about three years. He then started his own painting business, which he ran from 1988 to 2006.
Blackwell said he wanted to have a job and income before seeing his daughter for the first time as a free man.
“It’s like you lost something and you found it again. It’s kind of strange,” he said of being reunited with her. “Right today, she’ll tell you she’s crazy about me. She loves me.”
Nowadays, Blackwell said he works at a boot camp for at-risk youth in Augusta as a teacher’s aide. He said he tells them about his “situation.”
“I keep telling them, ‘You don’t want to go down this road,’” he said. “Some have listened. Some were kind of mean-headed when I got there, but when I got through with them, they weren’t so mean-headed. I let them know, you ain’t all that and a bag of chips. You think you’re bad – wait till you get to the penitentiary.”
‘I need their forgiveness’
When Blackwell first contacted the Aiken Standard in November, he said he had a story to tell, and that it couldn’t be told in one article.
Other media outlets have wanted to publish his tale, but he wanted to begin in Aiken because “this is where it really happened,” he said. “This is where I think I needed to start.”
In addition to the thefts from his former employers, the two store robberies and the bank robberies in Aiken, Beech Island and Clearwater, Blackwell said he was involved in other crimes.
According to a story in the April 9, 1976, issue of the Aiken Standard, Blackwell was charged with armed robbery and assault and battery with intent to kill in the Feb. 20, 1975, shooting of Tom Crouch, owner of Aiken Bowl on Whiskey Road.
“I shot him,” Blackwell said. “I know what time he’s coming out. When he came out, I told him to freeze – ‘Give me your money. That’s all I want.’ But he ain’t fixing to give it up.”
Crouch had a gun, and during an exchange of fire, he was shot in the abdomen. He was found lying on the ground next to his bowling alley, according to reports.
Blackwell said he was one of three men who broke into a home on Citadel Drive on Dec. 21, 1974. During that incident, the homeowner, P.T. Scott, was shot by one of Blackwell’s robbery accomplices.
During another robbery at a drugstore on Whiskey Road, Blackwell said the same accomplice shot a man in the neck.
While recounting what brought him to Aiken, how he got sucked into a life of crime and how it impacted him and those around him, Blackwell said he hurt a number of people over the years. And he wants to apologize to them.
“One of the apologies is for the people that were physically hurt. The second is for the people who were mentally hurt,” he said. “I want to apologize, and I want them to remember something that God said – that he would remove your transgressions as far as the east is from the west.”
Blackwell said part of his change in heart came years after he was released from prison. While being treated for kidney failure in 2010, Blackwell said he went into a coma.
During the coma, he was declared clinically dead twice, he said. He was brought back the first time by chest compressions, and the second time by a defibrillator, the charge of which led to him losing two of his toes.
Blackwell said that made him reflect on the things he’d promised God while in prison.
“God’s got a way of getting your attention, and that got my attention,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, Lord. I’m gonna get re-baptized and I’m gonna do it your way this time.”
Blackwell said he was re-baptized in October 2011.
“My whole mindset about everything just changed,” he said. “It seemed like when I went under that water, I was one person, but when I came back up, I was totally new.”
Since then, Blackwell said he’s been on a quest.
“I need their forgiveness to complete this quest,” he said. “I want to be forgiven by all the people I’ve affected. I know I’m gonna miss some here and there, but I want to try to reach as many as I can.
“I would love to meet them,” he continued. “If they have questions, I would love to be there for them. Whatever I can do to help heal the situation – if I can help heal it. I’m willing to look them in the face and give them a personal apology, if that’s what they want.”
He’s thought about how the victims and their families may react, and said he’s prepared.
“If they slap me, if they spit on me, if they take out a weapon and injure me, I’m not gonna worry about it,” he said. “I’m prepared for that.”
“I do believe in good and evil,” he said. “I have seen since my incarceration, when I am doing good, the benefits I get. I’ve seen in the past when I did evil. I like what I’m doing now.”
Editor’s note: This is the final story in a three-part series of Blackwell’s life of crime and redemption, as he told it to the Aiken Standard.