The phone rang as I was driving up Eighth Avenue, just past Zanies, on the way home from some Christmas shopping.
“Is this Joe Rogers?” the guy on the other end asked. I told him it was.
“My parole officer told me to call you,” he said.
And with those words, Bill Elliott made my day.
Our relationship started in March 1991, when I heard that an inmate at Tennessee State Prison had written a book and sold it to a publisher. A feature writer for The Tennessean at the time, I went out to hear his story.
Bill was 44 and roughly nine years into one life sentence and five 99-year terms for armed robbery, plus two five-year terms for receiving stolen goods, all collected within a weeklong crime spree near Knoxville. His plan had been to use a police officer’s badge to rob people he said were drug dealers.
His reasoning, he said, was simple: “Hey, these people are illegal themselves. How will they call police and say I robbed them?
“But you know something? They did – and here I am.”
It wasn’t his first run-in with the law. Various nonviolent offenses had kept him in federal prison or on the run for much of his 20s. But he was justifiably proud of having managed to write the book during this stint behind bars, often rising at 3:30 a.m. before the distracting din commenced in the open cell block.
“It’s really the first thing I’ve seen through from start to finish that wasn’t against the law,” he said.
Bill, I soon realized, was a quote machine. And, his previous career in larceny notwithstanding, a refreshingly honest and thoroughly likable guy.
Whose earliest possible parole date was 2042. When he would be 93. If lucky.
I wrote about Bill again in 1992 when the book was published as “Hard Guy.” And in 1996, using him as an example of the 4,992 felons who were left behind when the Sentencing Reform Act of 1989 lowered sentences for many criminal offenses but offered no relief for those convicted and sentenced in earlier years.
Two years later I left Tennessee and Bill, but neither left my mind. Last year, after moving back, I set about determining his status.
Calls to the Department of Corrections got word to Bill, which resulted in his call to me and subsequent conversations. I learned that he’d written one more manuscript in prison, which his agent shopped around without success. Bill wasn’t too surprised.
“Even the good guys didn’t have any redeeming characteristics,” he said.
And Bill himself hadn’t felt optimistic about his prospects in general. “I thought I was going to die in there,” he said.
But a new federal law that accelerated good time benefits gave him an opportunity. He presented his case for release to the Parole Board in September 2010.
“There was no objection, even from the prosecutor’s office,” he said. “It had been so long, they didn’t know who I was.”
And so he walked out of the Northeast Correctional Complex outside Mountain City on Dec. 13, 2010. With, he said, an “extreme case” of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was nuts when I came out,” he said. “What wouldn’t even irritate you sent me into a blind rage.”
In that first year after prison, he never went anywhere without a family member alongside. He’d stand by doors or windows, staring into the distance, convinced that someone would soon be coming to lock him back up.
Three years of one-on-one therapy found through Cherokee Health Systems finally drove home the point that progress would take effort. And patience.
Patience, he had. Bill spent 29 years in prison during his final stretch, years during which plenty of other inmates came and left, some of whom had done worse things. Killed people, even.
“Please keep in mind I never raised a bump on anybody’s head,” he told me in 1991.
He never blamed anyone but himself for being in prison. But after a while, he began to wonder at what point the state’s punishment of him had turned into revenge.
I did, too.
Nowadays, at 72, he takes every opportunity to enjoy his children, grandchildren and his wife, Wendy. He plays in a pool league, rekindling an old talent. He also does the odd job here and there to supplement a small government benefit for older people not qualified for Social Security.
And he dutifully sees his parole officer every six months.
Instead of letting things set him off, as they once did, he puts his focus on the good around him. Little things, even. Like a cloud formation that he’ll stop to appreciate. He’ll think about how beautiful it is, he said.
“And I think – I’m going to die free.”
Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.