25 years of drug court brings 2,000 graduations, a gospel ensemble, many thank yous to Pierce County courthouse

The Michael Mohn who spoke to a crowded Pierce County courtroom Thursday looked quite different than the mugshot projected behind him.

“By the grace of God I got arrested,” Mohn said in front of the photo, in which he looked battered and ill.

In-person the 39-year-old looked happy and healthy.

He was one of the Pierce County Felony Drug Court graduates there to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the program, which offers treatment as an alternative to incarceration.

Mohn said he was a top salesman, who suffered from addiction after he was over-prescribed painkillers for a back injury.

He said he started to miss work and to lie. Ultimately his wife left with the kids, he said, and he ended up living under a bridge.

He tried many times to go through treatment on his own, he said.

It was the support of the drug court team that he needed, Mohn said. He graduated in January 2017.

“Drug court gave me the tools to restart my life, gave me a road map that I still use today,” he told The News Tribune.

Today he’s a foreman for a construction company, he said.

John Harris, 40, was another graduate who spoke, and sang, at the celebration.

He graduated from the county’s veterans drug court, which he said gave him a sort of camaraderie with other veterans while in recovery, like he had during his 10 years in the Army.

He was one of six members of Greater Works Singers, accompanied by a drum set and a keyboard, who performed at the courthouse Thursday to close out the celebration.

Their ensemble is part of the Greater Works gospel choir, which has more than 40 members from across the country, that performed on “America’s Got Talent” in 2017. The choir is led by DaNell Daymon.

Harris said he kept in touch with Judge Elizabeth Martin and others during the competition.

“Letting her know they needed to vote,” he said with a laugh.

His supporters watched videos of the choir’s performances in the drug court courtroom.

Thursday at the courthouse Harris’ ensemble sang: “I don’t want to miss a thing.”

Among the lyrics: “Every moment spent with you is a moment I treasure.”

They closed with “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough.”

Everyone was on their feet.

“Remember the day I set you free,” they sang. “I told you you could always count on me, darling. From that day on I made a vow ... .”

Meanwhile happy photos of drug court graduates were projected near the choir, including one of Mohn and his kids celebrating a recent Father’s Day.

Relapse, he said, isn’t going to be part of his story anymore.

There have been more than 2000 graduations from drug court since then-Pierce County Superior Court Judges Gary Steiner and Kelley Arnold started it.

Judge Martin is currently presiding over the program, which judges take turns overseeing for one-year rotations.

Martin acknowledged the many people at the celebration she said made the program possible, including those at the Pierce County Alliance.

“It is a treatment court, and treatment is the foundation of what we do,” Martin said.

Among those she recognized were defense attorney Lisa Sinnitt and deputy prosecutor Rose Wilhelm, who have been part of the drug court team for 23 years.

Martin joked that they’re like an old married couple.

For 21 of those years, one graduate has called them up and taken the pair to lunch on the anniversary of his sobriety.

Martin also recognized Jami Bonomo, the program’s in-court coordinator who for about 11 years has served as a liaison with the Pierce County Alliance and had tough conversations with those in drug court when they needed it.

Bonomo just celebrated 15 years of sobriety.

“I went to jail more times than I walked out of the courtroom,” she told the crowd. “Thank you, Judge Steiner.”

For the record, she said, she did not graduate drug court.

But she said it gave her tools, such as reinforcing the foundation of healthy relationships.

She told The News Tribune she wants others to know: “If they’re struggling with addiction, seek help. There’s lots of it out there.”

Martin also pointed out that those who graduate aren’t the only drug court participants who benefit from the program.

She said a woman that she terminated from the program came up to her at the celebration, to tell her that she’s been sober for a year.

“They get a taste of recovery,” Martin told The News Tribune. “We plant seeds.”

She told the crowd that the program can be difficult for the judges, when they send participants back to jail following a relapse, or terminate someone from the program.

She went to Judge Edmund Murphy on such a day and asked if he had hard times overseeing therapeutic court.

He told her that she needed to borrow his starfish poster.

There’s a parable, Martin explained, about a man on a beach covered in starfish. He throws them back into the sea one-by-one, to keep them from dying in the sun.

Someone approached the man and asked why he bothered. He’d clearly never be able to save all of them. It wouldn’t make a difference no matter how hard he tried.

As he threw another starfish into the sea, the man said: “It made a difference to that one.”

“That’s why we do drug court,” Martin said.

Alexis Krell covers local, state and federal court cases that affect Pierce County. She started covering courts in 2016. Before that she wrote about crime and breaking news for almost four years as The News Tribune’s night reporter.