Teen criminal, now teen counselor
KATHLEEN MERRYMAN; staff writer
If you lived near Brandon Stogsdill in Parkland in the 1990s, chances are good he owes you an apology.
The nearly four years he served at McNeil Island Corrections Center in his late teens and early 20s don’t make up for all the mistakes in his life.
But Stogsdill is 29 now, giving those apologies, and redeeming himself.
From the fifth grade on, he was a felon in training.
His first big crime, meaning the one he got caught for, was breaking into Elmhurst Elementary School with two friends and stealing candy, slide whistles and stamps.
“Somebody told on us, my buddy’s foster sister saw us playing the instruments,” Stogsdill said.
When the police came, he found out he was a pretty good little liar.
“I told them we got them at a garage sale,” he said. “I was 10.”
After that, he said, he started to get bad fast: stealing, sneaking out at night, lying, flunking school, smashing windows, eventually fighting anyone who looked sideways at him.
He was good at being bad, and about as far as he could get from the hopeful first-grader he’d been.
“I remember being at a very early age, sitting outside the house, waiting for the school bus and imagining going to the University of Washington and getting a job where I wore a business suit and worked in a skyscraper.”
He’s blunt about his home life when he was little. There were fights, mental illness and substance abuse in his home. He said he was abused by a neighbor.
It helped form him, but he knows it’s not an excuse for the havoc he wrought in other people’s lives.
He can never apologize to everyone he hurt. What he can do is help other troubled kids skip the pain he caused, and the criminal record he acquired.
Stogsdill is a youth counselor now, with a master’s degree, aiming for a doctorate, and working on a diversion plan that might, in fact, catch kids before they fall.
His past is an asset, said his colleague, Patrick Love, a clinician and counselor at Sound Mental Health in Seattle.
“He brings his background to his work to offer kids who are fairly unreachable a chance to be reached, especially the kind of kids who have legal system involvements,” Love said.
“He has a way of being with them and helping them think. That’s a special tool. He really brings a lot of passion to what he’s doing. I know he’s the most productive person as far as the numbers go. He’s also brought the Burton Chill program to us, and five of our kids were able to participate.”
Burton Chill is a nonprofit program that gives underserved kids the chance to learn board sports, including snowboarding. Stogsdill takes them to the mountain, and skateboarding and biking near Seattle.
Melissa Salathe worked with him as he progressed from a chaperone to Burton Chill’s Seattle-area coordinator. She worked with him at Life Center’s Impact program when he was straight out of prison.
“Life Center is a place full of second chances,” Salathe said. “His story has literally been one of transformation. His whole motive is to let people know you can have a life turned to shambles, and it’s not the end of the world, and you can still accomplish great things. Brandon is an amazing person and friend to youth.”
Stogsdill, they said, is very good at catching kids as they’re falling. He tried to catch himself when he was in seventh grade, but couldn’t.
“I was depressed and failing school,” he said.
To stop hurting, he decided not to care any more. He picked fights.
“I’d go after thugged-out guys,” he said. “For some reason, I felt like I was taking care of the community, that I was some kind of vigilante.”
When he heard people wanted to kill him, he got a gun from a friend who’d stolen it. Stogsdill carried it everywhere, even to class at Washington High School.
He took it with him when he and three friends broke into houses, cars, RVs. They stole televisions, game consoles, and guns, guns, guns. They learned to hide them, fence them and divide their earnings.
“After five days of work, you’d each get $100, and we’d destroyed someone’s entire life,” he said. “It makes me sick to my stomach.”
That’s looking back. At the time, however, he won praise and respect from his friends.
He was 17 when, after a fight, he fired on a car full of the other guys. No one was hurt. He figured he’d be charged as a minor.
Instead, he was convicted of assault as an adult and sentenced to four years in prison.
It turned out to be a gift.
His first night of hard time, he went to bed crying. He woke the next day resolved to change everything.
“I got involved in school. It was super hard for me, but I started to do well,” he said. “I went crazy and took as many classes as I could. I felt like every class I took was money in my pocket saved from what I’d have to spend out on the street.”
He listened to Dr. Drew Pinsky on the radio, at first for entertainment, and then to work through his own life.
“I went to church,” he said. “I was just sitting in the building, not paying attention, but feeling comforted,” he said. “I was happier in prison than I ever was on the streets. I realized God had a plan for me. That’s when I believed in God.”
He wrote scholarship applications from McNeil Island, and won them. Within an hour of stepping off the ferry to freedom, he said he was sitting in a Pierce College classroom.
He went to Life Center and asked to volunteer with the teen Impact Program.
“I told them everything – my whole story – and everything I would do for them,” he said.
He made good on that commitment, got a job, earned his associate’s degree with honors, and won a full scholarship to the University of Washington in Seattle. While there he won award after award for his volunteer work, and graduated with a 3.0 grade point average.
He took out $70,000 in loans and earned his master’s degree from Argosy University with a 3.6 grade point average.
In his spare time, he wrote a book, his life story, “The Boy with the Gun.”
He is now a clinician and case manager at Sound Mental Health in Seattle, getting training to work in chemical dependency.
He has demonstrated to those who trusted him as a volunteer, those who monitor his work, that he is a gift to young people on the way to becoming what he once was.
There is redemption in that.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677