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The enduring bond

THE JUDGE AND THE ADDICT

As a former convict struggles with his demons, he has an unexpected ally.

February 28, 2010|By Kurt Streeter | Second Of Two Parts

Banyard called the courthouse almost every day. When Letts wasn't there, he talked to the judge's longtime assistant, Nancy Webb, who became another counselor, almost a second mother. Sometimes he'd go to the courtroom and sit quietly in the gallery, watching the proceedings. Other times, he and Letts would sit in chambers, eating turkey sandwiches, talking. Webb could see how important the meetings were to both men, the bond growing between them. "Almost," she said, "like a father and a son."

But as close as they became, Banyard had a hard time talking freely about his guilt and shame, his shaky sense of self-worth, the trouble he was having getting through each day without the discipline of prison. He was too embarrassed.

One night in 2007, a woman he dated surprised him by pulling out a vial of cocaine. Just one snort, he thought, figuring he could handle it.

He did not return to his sister's house that night. He trolled the streets of Los Angeles for crack, tearing himself up inside because he was wasting his miracle -- and risking a return to prison for life. He could die.

Unable to reach him, Letts realized how deeply he was invested in Banyard's future. Depression hit. He couldn't sleep. He stopped laughing. Sometimes, he sat in his chambers, face buried in his right hand, wondering about Banyard. "I was frozen," he recalled. "Sometimes for an hour."

So one summer afternoon, the judge placed his watch and wallet on his desk, changed into a T-shirt and old pair of khakis, picked up a photograph of Banyard and headed off to the only place he thought he might be.

"I have to find him, Nancy," he said as he left. "I just have to."

Alone, the judge walked every block of skid row, showing the photo and asking one question: "Have you seen my friend?"

It was always "no." Sometimes the answers were threatening.

"Old man," someone barked. "Who the hell do you think you are coming down here? This is no place for you. Get out of here."

But Letts kept going. "If someone is going to shoot me," he thought, "then just shoot me. . . . Have to find him, have to bring him back."

One hour passed. Two, three.

Months went by.

One day, Banyard left the judge a voice-mail message. He was at the Cider House drug treatment center in Norwalk.

Banyard said he had been walking for miles in search of a high. The soles of his shoes had worn through.

He had been arrested for stealing a pair of sneakers to replace them. Because petty theft was no longer prosecuted as a third strike in Los Angeles County, a court had ordered him to rehab.

Letts and Webb went there immediately. When the door opened at the treatment center and they walked in, Banyard's knees buckled and he wept.

"I messed up again," Banyard said, as he and the judge hugged. "I fell off the wagon. I'm so ashamed. What's wrong with me?"

Letts stepped back and looked at Banyard. He saw the same eagerness, the same hope he had seen before.

"Michael," he said, "there's only one thing left for you to do: Get back on your feet again. Get back on your feet, and know that I am behind you. I will always be."

Nothing will ever be certain in Banyard's life. He completed treatment and seemed to be getting better. But last June, after succumbing to crack again and being convicted of stealing vitamins from a Rite-Aid, he was sentenced to another treatment house. He lives there now.

Through Letts, he met Le'Chein Taylor, a former gang member who works with at-risk kids. Banyard volunteers with Taylor three days a week, warning kids not to follow his path. He also spends hours at a San Fernando Valley library, trying to educate himself.

Whenever he can, he takes the subway to the federal courthouse and sits in the mahogany paneled chambers with Letts.

They talk about troubles and fears. They laugh, eat turkey sandwiches and discuss hope and the future.

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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