Unjustly imprisoned man makes peace with ex-officer

By Louise Wrege
The Herald-Palladium (St. Joseph)

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (AP) - An unlikely pair is working side-by-side at Cafe Mosaic in Benton Harbor - a man who was unjustly sent to prison and the former officer who sent him there.

Former Benton Harbor police officer Andrew Collins, now the manager at Cafe Mosaic, is the mentor for Jameel McGee of Benton Harbor, who spent four years in federal prison because of Collins' lies.

Both men said the experience brought them closer to Jesus, and they want to travel to churches and organizations to tell their story of redemption and forgiveness.

Collins, 33, doesn't mince words when he talks about his time as a crooked officer, according to The Herald-Palladium.

"Shortly after becoming a narcotics investigator, I became a full-blown corrupt police officer," said Collins, who spent 18 months in prison for his crimes. "What started off as small indiscretions led to bigger ones, which led to bigger ones, and was this slippery slope of wrongdoings. By the end of my short five-year career, I was a full-blown what you would call a dirty cop."

Collins said after he was caught, he worked with FBI investigators to clear people who had been wrongly convicted. Also convicted was his supervisor, Bernard Hall. The Berrien County Prosecutor's Office ended up dismissing about 50 cases Collins and Hall had worked on.

But that doesn't give McGee, 35, back the four years he spent in federal prison for his wrongful conviction.

McGee said he first met Collins on Feb. 8, 2005, when he was arrested for possessing crack cocaine that wasn't his. He said he went to the store to pick up supplies for his son's first birthday and accepted a ride from some people he knew were into drugs.

"I came out of the store and Collins snatched me up, and I couldn't understand why," McGee said.

He said he had no drugs on him.

"I was getting angry and couldn't understand what was going on," he said.

Later, he said he found out that the people who had given him a ride to the store had said he was the driver and that the drugs found in the car were his.

"There was an ounce of crack found in the cup holder," Collins said. "It wasn't on anybody. But the guy in the car said he (McGee) was the driver."

Collins said he can't recall all of the details, but remembers that he wanted McGee to be the driver and to be the one responsible for the drugs.

"What I did was I creatively articulated the report," Collins said. "I made sure the report sounded good for the way that it needed to sound for a conviction."

McGee said his case went to trial, where he was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years.

McGee said he became angry and bitter about the situation. But soon after going to prison, he said he noticed the Bible on the table.

"I grabbed the Bible and just started reading it," he said. "As I was reading it, all these thoughts started coming in my head - to just let stuff go. Just let it go. Move on. Be something productive while you're here."

He said he started signing up for activities and jobs in prison, including working in the band room, where he learned about the sound system and how to play some of the instruments.

He said he started wondering if God had sent him to prison for a reason.

"(In 2006), my brother got shot," McGee said. "I was like, 'Maybe this is the reason God has me here.' I was like, 'Wow, the way everything was going, I probably would have done something real stupid.'"

In addition, McGee said he started realizing he was partially responsible for his being in prison because he accepted a ride from the wrong people.

"I had my own choices to make," he said. "I could have made different choices."

Now, he said, if he needs to go somewhere, he walks.

"I don't want to take a ride when I know I can walk or ride a bike because that's what got me into the situation I was just in."

McGee was released from prison on Feb. 4, 2009 - just days after Collins pleaded guilty Jan 29, 2009.

Collins said his slide to becoming crooked was a gradual one. He said he was hired by the Benton Harbor Police Department in July 2003 - a month after graduating from the police academy.

"I don't remember the first instance of doing something wrong, but I remember thinking of it as bending the rules instead of breaking the rules," he said. "... By the end of my career, I was stealing money from citizens, I was stealing money from the city of Benton Harbor, I was lying on search warrants and on reports - things that I would have thought I never would have done four years earlier when I first became a police officer."

He said his journey to move closer to Jesus started shortly after supervisors searched his office Feb. 18, 2008, and found illegal drugs under his desk.

"That was the last day I was a police officer," he said.

Collins said he considered killing himself the day after he was caught.

"My wife saw the desperation when she came home from work that day and said, 'I think you need to go talk to a local pastor,'" he said.

Collins said he talked to the Rev. Brian Rumor from New Life Baptist Church in St. Joseph.

"The pastor had been a police officer before he was a pastor, so I trusted him in ways that I probably wouldn't trust other people," he said. "I went in on the 20th and just told him everything.

"For the first time from the beginning of my career I actually articulated the wrong things that I had done. And that's really where it began with me that I wasn't just sorry that I got caught. I was sorry for what I had actually done."

Then he said Rumor asked him where he was with Jesus.

"I hung my head and started crying and said, 'I don't deserve (salvation),'" he said. "The pastor was so patient with me and he walked me through a couple verses out of Scripture that say none of us deserve saving grace. And I started to feel this hope within me."

That's where he said his love affair with the Bible began.

"My life hasn't been roses since then." he said. "I still had to walk through the trials, but I was able to walk through it with this renewed hope that my redemption was placed in (Jesus) and nothing else."

Collins and McGee met again in Benton Harbor's Broadway Park in 2011 - less than a year after Collins got out of prison.

Collins said he was volunteering with Overflow Church, which was holding H3 - Hoops, Hip Hop and Hot dogs. He said McGee approached him with his 5-year-old son and asked him if he remembered him.

"I shook his hand and he wouldn't let go," Collins said. "And I knew it wasn't going to be a good run-in. His whole countenance changed. And he looked at his son and said, 'I want you to explain to my son why his dad hasn't been in his whole life.'"

Collins said all he could do was apologize at that point.

McGee said that though he had made peace with what had happened while he was in prison, he got angry all over again once he got out.

He said he worked at various factory and construction jobs until 2012, when he seriously hurt his hand while on a job that required him to handle 45-50-pound steel bars. He said the job paid for his doctor's bills, but expected him to continue doing the same job, though he had stitches and a cast on his hand.

He said he has been unable to hold down a job since because his hand requires more surgery.

"It swells up and hurts once I start doing a lot of movement," he said.

Three months ago, McGee said an agency sent him to Debra Mead, a disability guide with the Southwest Michigan Disability Network in Berrien and Cass Counties.

"She's also a believer, so she sees that God is pursuing Jameel," Collins said.

McGee said she talked him into joining the Jobs Through Life Program at Mosaic Christian Community Development Association, which runs Cafe Mosaic.

McGee said someone who didn't know their history paired him with Collins as his mentor. Collins said he initially didn't recognize McGee.

"Before that day, I had never seen you happy," Collins said to McGee.

After McGee told him who he was, Collins said he started apologizing and McGee told him to stop.

"He said, 'We've already had that discussion. It's forgotten,'" Collins said. "And we started talking about how God restores himself to us first through Jesus and then he restores us to each other."

Collins said people need to forgive themselves and each other, otherwise they are in a prison of their own bitterness.

"We have this joint mission, now, of letting the world know that if you owe an apology to somebody, put your pride down and go apologize," Collins said. "And if you're holding something against somebody, let go of the bitterness because it's like drinking poison and hoping it's hurting them."

Collins said one of his probation requirements was to talk to cadets at the police academy at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Kalamazoo, which he has continued to do even after his probation period.

"It's a story that can hopefully help keep a lot of people from making bad mistakes," he said. "When somebody embezzles money, they don't embezzle $10,000 at a time. They embezzle $10 first. And then they get a little bolder and before you know it, they've dug themselves in a pit."

He said he embezzled about $10,000 from the city, which he has repaid.

Collins, who is weeks away from becoming a licensed pastor, said he wants to get the message to people who are on the slippery slope of crime that they can get off it by making different choices.

Published: Mon, Nov 02, 2015