CARLISLE – For most of the men of cell house N, the quarter-mile walk around the prison yard to the chow hall and back is just the price they pay for breakfast. The heavy steel doors open, and they surge forward into the pre-dawn gloom, compelled by hunger.
For Colt Lundy, the push into the brisk morning air is driven as much by other things – the chance to move freely, to leave the confines of a cell the size of a walk-in closet, to breathe air that hasn’t been recirculated among hundreds of caged men.
And then there’s the night sky. This is his lone chance to look up and, with a little luck, see the moon.
Lundy’s second-floor cell at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility south of Terre Haute has a window, if you can call it that. But it is a narrow slit of glass that limits the view to just a few degrees of sky. On most nights, the moon is cropped out of the picture.
Most of his walks – to chow, to recreation, to his job in the prison library, to see family members in the visitors center – are sunlit excursions. His best chance to catch a glimpse of the heavens comes here and now, before sunup.
And so Lundy, clustered in a herd of prisoners clad in beige, waits behind the big steel doors with a question to start each day: Will the moon be out this morning? Or will the sky, like so much in Lundy’s life, be just one more impenetrable wall?
The last time Lundy had a good long look at the night sky was four years ago, when he was 15. He and two other boys took off into the night in a car none of them was legally old enough to drive. He was eager to head west, to put some distance between himself and Cromwell. Most of all, he was interested in putting some distance between himself and the dead body he’d left behind on the floor.
The crime was less sensational than the criminals and how they were punished. Two boys, ages 15 and 12, were each sentenced as adults and to 25 years in prison. The younger of the two boys, 12-year-old Paul Henry Gingerich, was believed to be the youngest child in Indiana ever sentenced as an adult.
Gingerich was so small that corrections officials took one look at him and assigned him to a prison for juveniles. It was no summer camp, but it had a school and counselors and a chance at a diploma.
In the tempest over the sentencing of the 12-year-old Gingerich, Lundy soon became an afterthought. He wasn’t much bigger than Gingerich, but he was three years older.
Corrections officials shipped him to the maximum-security prison at Wabash, home to 2,000 of the worst criminals in the state. There was no chance at a high school diploma at Wabash.
Their handling became a case study: two ways to reform two boys who committed the same crime.
In Colt’s eyes, Phil Danner was a decent enough guy – when he was sober.
He had taken up with Colt’s mother, Robin, when the boy was still young and his father had drifted away. Phil taught Colt to ice fish, showed him the art of dirt bike maintenance, even showed him how to shoot a pellet gun.
That Phil Danner was OK.
The other Phil Danner had a fondness for Jack Daniel’s. He yelled at Colt. He cursed at him. Sometimes, he grabbed the boy and threw him around the living room.
Those episodes were nothing super serious, Colt says. Nothing that would leave a mark. Nothing that would concern the police. But they made home a place that Colt wanted to avoid, where he didn’t bring friends, that he wanted to escape.
After one of Phil’s drunken tirades, Colt confronted his mother. He asked her why she did nothing to stop them – Phil wasn’t even his father. She had nothing to say.
So he stopped pleading. If he does it again, Colt said, I’m going to kill him.
Robin Danner doesn’t recall the conversation. She said Phil was an alcoholic and verbally abusive, but she doesn’t remember seeing any physical abuse.
Colt is less opaque. Phil kept drinking, kept being rough. And Colt began to dream of faraway places. One that kept coming back to him more than others: California.
With the small pack of boys from his Enchanted Hills neighborhood, Colt began talking about California. For weeks, they talked about making the trip, about the things they needed to take. Nobody gave much thought to where they’d live or what they’d eat. Maybe they could get jobs.
In my mind, California just seemed carefree, he said. That was the place to go. That was the place to be.
Lundy is still dreaming of California. Only these days, he’s dreaming from prison.
Hundreds of miles from Cromwell, Wabash Valley Correctional Facility sits along a lonely stretch of U.S. 41 where signs warn drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. And for good reason: The prisoners here have committed the worst sorts of crimes: child molestation, rape, murder.
The sprawling prison is cordoned by a series of high electrified fences topped with razor wire. Behind tinted glass in looming watchtowers, sharpshooters keep a watch on the grounds below. Inside, the guards who keep a lid on things carry tear gas, but if things get out of hand, if a riot breaks out, there are weapons teams ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice.
Lundy, who just turned 19, has been part of this world for 3 1/2 years.
On most days, he rises early and bathes in showers that are most notable for their lack of privacy. Only a swinging door hides the bare essentials. They’re built this way for the same reason fliers are posted throughout the prison proclaiming: Sexual Assault is an act of violence.
Lost privacy is an inescapable part of life. He and his cellmate hang a sheet up when one of them needs to use their shared toilet, but it’s not much help. Before he can see his father, Carlos Lundy, Colt must submit to a strip search that includes a cavity check.
Despite everything, prison officials say Lundy is a model offender. He’s caused no trouble. He’s earned his GED certificate. He’s taking some college correspondence courses. He makes quilts for the homeless. He’s growing his hair long so he can donate it to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for cancer patients. He eats a vegan diet. He writes poetry.
His current dream of California, and of freedom, sprung from his welcome to Wabash – in the prison’s juvenile wing, where he spent his first 2 1/2 years here.
The wing was supposed to be a buffer from the older prisoners. To Lundy, it looked like a warehouse for troubled kids in a place that didn’t seem to know what to do with them.
Emotional outbursts were wild, random and violent. There were fights daily.
He began to wonder: If this is life in the juvenile wing, what awaited in the general population? He was headed there at age 18 and, at the time, he had the physical attributes of a boy marshmallow. He knew he needed to firm up. So he started exercising.
He found the book Convict Conditioning: How to Bust Free of All Weakness – Using the Lost Secrets of Supreme Survival Strength, which teaches the art of training in a confined space using your own body weight for resistance. He sees the book almost as a road map to freedom.
Once he’s served his time and he’s off probation, his dream is to head to California and begin the next chapter of his life. There’s prize money to be won there – $275,000. Enough to stake him to a new life running his own business as a personal trainer. To win the money, he’ll have to prevail in an unusual contest of strength, endurance and fitness called the CrossFit Games. In Lundy’s eyes, this is not a pie-in-the-sky dream. This is the new plan.
His last plan didn’t work out so well.
Colt was a couple of years older than the boys he hung around with back in Enchanted Hills. He had cultivated an image of someone unafraid to act, who was almost grown up. He’d run away a couple of times. He smoked pot. He was the tough kid.
So by the afternoon of April 20, 2010, when Colt met four of the boys in a neighborhood park, his image as a man of action and his ambitions to free himself from Phil Danner were powerful forces. And they were driving him toward California.
But drunk or sober, Phil Danner wasn’t about to let Colt drive away in his car.
Colt’s memory is vague of how the idea came up. One of the boys said it was Colt’s idea. But the conversation took a dangerous turn: They’d have to kill Phil.
Maybe in my mind, Colt says now, I thought that would be a way to escape.
Finding the means was easy. The home Colt shared with his mother and now-stepfather had guns stashed all over the place.
Colt knew where the guns were. He selected two and went to his bedroom. The other boys, who stayed outside, were less sure of the plan. One of them wanted no part of the plot and held back. Another considered going in the house but stopped just short. But a fourth, 12-year-old Paul Henry Gingerich, climbed through Colt’s window (with a boost from one of the others). Colt took out a handgun, put a round in the chamber and handed it to Paul. They went to the living room. Colt took a seat in a recliner. Paul took one on the couch.
Phil Danner was watching TV in another part of the house. They would wait for him. Eventually he’d get up and walk through. They’d be waiting for him. But as the TV droned on, the boys began to debate. Can we do this?
For Colt, showing he was scared was not an option. His image was pushing him to the precipice. I didn’t have the intellectual power at the time to stop it.
As Danner got up from his chair, walked through the kitchen and rounded the corner into his living room, Colt and Paul were waiting with their guns pointed.
When Danner entered the room, he saw Colt, his stepson, and he saw Paul, a boy he’d never met. His last words, Colt recounted recently in a legal deposition, were blunt. What the f---?
Colt fired his gun.
Paul fired his.
Colt fired again.
So did Paul.
Danner was hit four times. Phil Danner dropped dead where he stood.
Colt felt sick to his stomach. Almost immediately, he thought: Oh, man, this is bad.
He suppressed that long enough to summon the two boys who had waited outside. He wanted them to see what he and Paul had done. He wanted them to see he was a man of action.
Now, their last obstacle had been removed. Colt packed a survival bag with a gun and some ammo, a jar of change, a magnesium bar and Phil’s wallet.
Before they could leave, Paul had to go home for supper. Colt hung out with a friend, who gave him some pot for the road. Colt got behind the wheel of Danner’s Dodge Neon, and they went to pick up Paul.
As they looked westward, Colt realized they’d told too many friends about California. He adjusted the GPS and set it for Arizona. At least it was far way.
They stopped at a Wal-Mart for some energy drinks and to find one of those machines that converts coins to paper currency. They dumped in the change from the jar, and now they had $90 in cash. The money was supposed to be for gas, to get them across the country.
But they couldn’t resist. Before heading back to the car, they took a walk through sporting goods.
But the boys had aroused the curiosity of some police officers hovering outside: Why were three boys out after midnight? The police searched their car. They found the gun and the marijuana. Just like that, their great Western excursion, their search for open spaces, was over in Peru, Illinois.
Within months, Colt Lundy and Paul Gingerich each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and were sentenced – as adults – to 25 years in prison. The deal was billed to them as less risky than a trial for murder and the potential 45 to 60 years in jail. With good behavior, they were told, their time might be cut in half, and they’d be out in their mid- to late 20s.
Soon, though, an uproar ensued over Gingerich. Bloggers rallied for him. Monica Foster, an Indianapolis attorney experienced in death row appeals, took up his cause and waived her fees. Juvenile justice advocates filed briefs and clamored for reform. They all argued that a boy so young didn’t have the the judgment to step back from the precipice, and therefore he should not be punished so harshly.
The reformers won a new law – Paul’s Law, it was called – that gave judges more flexibility in sentencing. Gingerich won an appeal and a right to a retrial. He pleaded guilty again, this time under the new law. He now may go free by age 18.
Lundy was too old to benefit from Paul’s Law. He has no lawyer, no plans to appeal. Lundy says he harbors no bitterness about the likelihood that Gingerich could get out several years sooner, despite having been party to the same crime. He wants it known that he bullied no one, that the boys were his buddies.
He sees his original plea deal as fair, even if it keeps him locked up for eight more years. His sentence, he says, is shorter than that of many of the prisoners he spends every day with at Wabash.
I have accepted my time.
He’s equally clear that no matter what Phil Danner did, he didn’t deserve to die.
There’s not much that does justify taking a life, he said. And I certainly wasn’t justified in what I did.