BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Robert Spiers says his new life began after his Nov. 8, 2001, arrest for robbing a south-central Kentucky bank.
The Bowling Green man, who served 12 years in prison after robbing a total of three banks, has been a paralegal at Coffman Law Office since September. He is enrolled in Western Kentucky University's pre-law program majoring in history and religious studies. He also is in the paralegal program.
"The kid doing that stuff died Nov. 8," he said of the bank robberies.
Spiers has been a good employee, attorney Brad Coffman said. He has found Spiers and other employees who have had brushes with the law to be "confident, productive and extremely loyal."
"He's had a pretty uneventful transition. He was recommended by several people in the community," Coffman said. "I've given people second chances. He's not the first one. Won't be the last."
Since being released from prison, Spiers has had to make major adjustments, Coffman said.
"He came out of prison wanting to prove himself. He has a real desire to prove himself," he said.
So far, he's succeeding.
"He hasn't tried my patience too much," Coffman said. "He works with supervision, but he works well without supervision. He comes in on time."
Coffman mentors Spiers just as other attorneys have mentored him over the years.
"I think Robert has a real interest in the law, and I'm going to do everything I can to encourage him," he said.
Spiers grew up in a broken home, shuffled among his father, mother and grandmother during his early years in California.
"I had no way of establishing some kind of stability," he said. "I was raised predominantly by my maternal grandmother."
While living with his father, he suffered a lot of abuse from his stepmother, he said. He was kicked out at 15, and although the deal was that he'd go live with his mother, he chose to be homeless instead.
"I was homeless for several months," he said.
By this time, his grandmother had sold her ranch and moved to Kentucky. He had been living with a family in Sacramento, Calif., for a couple of months when his sister picked him up to take him to Kentucky. Sometime later, he moved to Nashville, where he was in what he called "a horrible relationship."
Then in 1998, he was hit with a big loss.
"My sister died. It woke me up to how self-defeating I was," he said.
It still wasn't enough to break his spiral. Spiers said his days were filled with waking up, smoking marijuana and working. He managed to get his GED and applied to WKU.
"I dreamed to walk on the basketball team," he said. "I was trying to become academically eligible."
Spiers was at WKU, but he was still fighting his demons. He did just enough to stay in school during his first year, but he flunked out his second year. He had been confining himself to his dorm room.
"(The Nashville relationship) was the most stability I knew. I never dealt with my sister's death very well," he said. "I never dealt with the homelessness. I had a nervous breakdown."
After flunking out of school, he met another girl and they decided to move to Spiers' native California. They got as far as Colorado before they needed money. That's where Spiers robbed his first bank on May 31, 2001, using an unloaded gun to get $4,000.
"We were going to take the money I had and establish ourselves," he said. "I was scared to death over there. I was crushed that I could scare people."
They lived with Spiers' father for a while before they were asked to leave. They moved into a hotel room.
That was where they lived on a morning that shook the nation. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists struck New York and Washington D.C. Spiers decided to take his girlfriend back to Kentucky. She had family who lived in New York and would eventually go there from Kentucky. The couple needed to fund the trip, so Spiers robbed a bank in California on Sept. 18, 2001. This time, he didn't use a gun. He got $4,000.
"I walked in the bank, jumped over the counter and told them to open the drawer," he said.
After they got back to Kentucky, the couple broke up, but it wasn't long before Spiers decided he wanted to go to New York to be with his ex-girlfriend. By this time he was living with a friend and wanted to buy a car for the trip. He robbed Farmers National Bank in Scottsville, taking $11,400.
"I had gotten away with it two times. This brought me back to my nervous state by the fact that I'm a two-time bank robber," he said. "My gut ate me up. All I wanted to do was not feel pain anymore."
Spiers raced back to Bowling Green. He pulled into a day care parking lot and made a phone call to a friend from Fabric World. When the police started coming, he took the loot and ran into a field. One of the law enforcement officials was standing close enough to where Spiers could hear his radio. He was described as armed and dangerous, and the officials were given permission to shoot him on sight, he said.
"I think these people are going to kill me," he said.
Then he heard what he believes was the voice of God saying, "Close your eyes my son and breathe."
"I exhaled every piece of terror in my body," he said. "I open my eyes, and this (police) dog is staring at me."
Instead of barking at Spiers' presence, however, the dog ran away, he said. Then he began feeling something poking him and felt blood on his face. He had run into a briar patch.
"I thought of Christ and this crown of thorns shoved on his head," he said. "I felt like he was saying, 'Look what I did for you.' "
Spiers said he wept for everything that had ever happened in his life.
"It was the most cleansing cry in my life," he said. "I stayed there until night time looking at the money. I was disgusted by it. I put it in this tree."
Spiers was going back to his friend's house when he was accosted by the police. It was a peaceful arrest, he said.
"I took them to the money," Spiers said. "I didn't want to get in trouble. I spilled my guts about everything that happened."
For the bank holdups, Spiers pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 32 years in prison. He spent time at federal facilities in Beckley, W.Va., Beaumont, Texas, and Lexington.
"After two years in prison I started an internal push to redefine myself," he said. "I was very much guided by my faith in God."
He found himself moving away from the "gangsta" images he had learned on the streets, choosing instead to take on the qualities he considers to be held by "a real man," including being responsible, a helper of others and "doing the right thing even if there's nobody else around to see it."
"I was learning how to create the man God wanted me to be," he said.
His case was revisited, and he was released in 2013 after serving 12 years of his sentence.
After immediately re-enrolling at WKU, Spiers began looking for a job. The search was difficult because he is a convicted felon. He became a participant in the Barren River Area Development District job training program and got his current job at Coffman Law Office. The program helps those who are receiving federal assistance get jobs. Employers get reimbursed 50 percent of their wages up to $3,000 for up to 12 weeks.
"Robert came into the Bowling Green Career Center and met with one of our case managers," said Amy Walker, BRADD Workforce Investment Area director. "He was able to do something that got her attention. There was a drive about him."
Walker believes Spiers will do well. It became even more apparent to her when he recently spoke during a BRADD meeting.
"I can see a future in him if he wanted to pursue a law degree. It's not a lot of people who could get up in front of a larger group and tell their story like that," she said. "He's not blaming what happened on anyone else. He's taking responsibility for what he did. He's also taking advantage of opportunities given to him. That shows someone who's going to be successful."
Spiers said he has paid back the money he stole and hopes to eventually become a lawyer.
He wants people to understand that felons are human.
"That mistake that we made really doesn't define who we are as people if we don't want it to," Spiers said.