THR Blog   /   August 21, 2020

More Than Their Crimes

One act should never define a person’s life.

Diane Gottlieb

( Photograph by Alex Linch/Shutterstock.)

My appointment reminded me of my days on Match.com. I was driving to meet a man for coffee, a man I’d only spoken with briefly before on the phone. But as I parked my car at the donut shop where we agreed to meet, the incessant churning of my stomach and frenetic beating of my heart betrayed a much greater apprehension than I ever experienced when meeting a potential love interest.

John Braga,* a first generation American of Portuguese descent, was just shy of fifty years old and had been out of prison for almost a year, after serving twenty-one years of a life sentence for murder in the second degree. In a drug-induced rage, he had beaten to death his girlfriend. Now, wearing a bomber jacket and a cranberry-colored sweater, he sat in a booth by the window, waiting for me to ask him questions about his life.  

“Can I get you anything?” John asked.

Having worked for several years as a therapist, I was no stranger to painful, deeply personal conversation. Still, I hesitated before broaching the topic John and I had come together to discuss: Anthony House, the transitional home where he had spent his first weeks of freedom, and Deacon Patrick Logsdon, the Catholic lay cleric who had been in charge of the place for the past thirty-three years, the man John Braga credits with helping him turn his life around. The deacon’s tenure at Anthony House ended on November 3, 2017, when, according to police reports, he was stabbed more than twenty times in the facility’s kitchen and left to die on the linoleum floor. Andre Patton, a former resident with “anger management issues,” was charged with the murder.  

I had known of Deacon Patrick for some time; a father of a child I had tutored on the North Shore of Long Island was a benefactor of Anthony House. Having been bullied as a child, I was moved by this man’s devotion to those cast aside by society and I wanted to learn more about his work.

My oldest son and his wife were volunteering for Parole Preparation Project in New York City at the time. Their task was to help prepare an inmate at Bear Hill Correctional Facility, who had served twenty-four years of his seventeen-to-life murder sentence, for his upcoming parole hearing. It was his third round before the parole board in six years. Knowing that a person’s chances of making parole increase dramatically if he has someplace to go after release, I asked my student’s father for the deacon’s email and passed it on to my son. They connected, and on his release, the former Bear Hill inmate moved himself and his few belongings into Anthony House. 

Two years later, when I learned that Deacon Patrick had been murdered, I was shocked. Aside from the immediate loss, I was concerned about how the murder would be viewed by the wider community. Would people conclude that the deacon had wasted his life and focus only on his violent end? Would they understand that the deacon’s work extended far beyond his tragic death? A deeply spiritual man, Deacon Patrick believed that those who had served their time were worthy of a second chance. At Anthony House, he improved these former inmates’ chances for success with real-world wisdom, routine, and friendship. I couldn’t change what had happened to the deacon, but I could try to learn more about the men that he cared about. 

John Braga was one of the deacon’s success stories, but I was still nervous. What if Andre Patton wasn’t the only killer with an “anger management” problem?

“Man, when I heard he was gone, I felt like I lost my father,” John told me. “The deacon told it like it is. He didn’t sugarcoat anything. It wasn’t always what I wanted to hear.” John laughed. Deacon Patrick laid out a strict program that he expected the men to follow. Finding work was the first order of business. 

“As soon as I landed at Anthony House,” John said, “it was time to look for a job. The deacon handed me a map and a MetroCard. He showed me where some of the others found work and sent me on my way.” Anthony House is located in Roosevelt, a suburb of Long Island within an easy commute to many of the small manufacturing plants still viable in Nassau County—plants that hire men with prison records. John found a job at a plastics factory that very first day. 

John described the daily routine at Anthony House: “We left early to catch the bus to work and were back by six p.m. for dinner. We did our jobs around the house, then some of the guys sat in the living room watching TV. We had to be in our rooms by nine-thirty and lights out at ten.” No drugs, no alcohol, no violence, no exceptions. Each resident signed a contract promising to abide by the rules. If he broke even one, he was out. 

“Deacon Pat taught us what we needed to do to succeed. I was in a hurry. I wanted big things, fast,” John said. “Deacon didn’t judge, but he helped me slow down, focus on the process. The deacon always kept it simple.”

That day, I sat with John for more than two hours, talking mostly about his transition time. He talked, too, about the din of the cellblock, the nighttime prison sounds he still couldn’t get out of his head. He shared his dream of one day buying a motorcycle and talked about his commitment to live a productive, sober life.

It would take several months of conversations with John before he talked about his crime. When he finally opened up, his whole demeanor changed. He would sigh deeply, his voice barely audible, shame hanging heavy in the air. He claims he doesn’t remember much about that night. High on crack and whatever else he put into his body, he blacked out, he says, and “woke up handcuffed to a hospital gurney.” Later on, he learned the gruesome details of the murder. John could not be charged until his girlfriend either recovered, or didn’t. She didn’t make it through the night.

John and I continue to speak every few weeks. Last Christmas Eve, he married a woman he used to date while in his teens. I bought them dinner as a wedding present and, as we ate, I could feel a bond of trust among us.

Over the next few months, I met several men who had also been convicted of murder. One was Chris, who at thirty-eight had spent almost twenty years behind bars, having entered prison at the age of fifteen. Ron spent twenty-six years in the New York State system, many of them at the infamous Attica State Prison. And there was Ra’Shaun, the man from Bear Hill Correctional whom my son had helped get admitted to Anthony House several years before. His prison sentence began when he was eighteen. I cannot discount the enormity of their crimes; because of their actions, others are dead. Yet I still recoil at the word murderer. As Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative, says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” One word, one act, should never define a person’s life.

The character of Andre Patton—Deacon Patrick’s murderer—feels more elusive to me. His attorney recently switched to an insanity defense, and the truth behind his motives and actions may never be known. Although I was present at his arraignment, I have not yet met him. I am not certain I want to meet him. I don’t know if I could ever look him in the eye to try to learn his truth. 

“Andre Patton didn’t only kill Deacon Pat,” John Braga told me. “He also killed the hopes of all the men in prison who wrote letters to the deacon, who spoke to him on the phone. They had plans of getting to Anthony House themselves someday, once they made parole. Now they have nothing.” Deacon Patrick’s murder had painful repercussions among many circles of people. As did the murder John committed. As do all murders. 

John Braga and the others I’ve met have generously shared what the deacon meant to them. They’ve openly and honestly expressed the challenges that convicted felons face every day. Over the past two years, I’ve learned a lot about these men and about the impact Deacon Patrick had on their lives. They will have to live with being called murderers. But I have come to call them friends.

* The name John Braga is a pseudonym used for privacy protection. All other names and identifying information are real and accurate. Anthony House has since closed and the St. Vincent de Paul Society now operates Dismas House as transitional housing for men coming out of prison.