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Teens who beat man get chance to change

Dinner was over, and Bible study was set to start in an hour at a little white house in north Lexington.

But the trio of young men who live there couldn't agree on which Bible verses they needed to study.

Johnny Georgetown and James Reynolds were sure they were assigned II Peter 1:10. They laughed as Ronnell Suter, who held the group's tan, leather-bound Bible, steadily tried to convince them that they were supposed to read verse 11 as well.

Georgetown, Reynolds and Suter spend many of their nights studying the Bible with a man who helped give them a second chance, one they didn't think existed after the violent attack that originally brought the three together.

Four years ago, when the men were just teenagers, they were arrested for the high-profile beating of a 76-year-old Lexington hotel worker.

The three teenagers pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and each was sentenced to at least 15 years in prison.

But a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling, a local pastor and forgiveness from their victim helped Georgetown, Reynolds and Suter receive probation this year.

The men are enrolled in a residential program led by Pastor Byron Cooper of Kingdom Purpose Ministries that is meant to divert offenders from continuing a life in crime.

All three men consider their probation a chance to redeem themselves in the eyes of the community that they say sees them only as criminals.

"I am a good kid," Reynolds said. "And I'm not the person they labeled me as."

'What they did was brutal'

It was four days before Christmas when Georgetown, Reynolds and Suter met James "Junior" Barnes in 2005.

Barnes was a maintenance worker at the Holiday Inn North off Newtown Pike. Co-workers said he was a do-it-all type of man who was like family to them.

That day, he came across a group of teenage boys who had knocked down Christmas decorations at the hotel. According to police records, Barnes told the boys to come back and pick up the decorations. The boys refused, and an argument ensued.

At some point, one of the boys punched Barnes in the face. The 76-year-old man fell to the ground, and the boys began to kick Barnes in the face and body.

The boys eventually ran away, leaving Barnes with a broken jaw and nose, cracked ribs and swollen eyes.

Within two weeks, Georgetown, Reynolds and Suter were arrested for their roles in the attack.

Reynolds and Suter were 15 at the time. Georgetown was 16. Officials charged the three as adults.

In 2007, the teenagers pleaded guilty to first-degree assault.

Georgetown, Suter and Reynolds were sentenced to 15, 16 and 17 years in prison, respectively.

"I didn't think I was ever getting out," Reynolds said.

As the criminal case began to play out in the courtroom and the local media, someone gave Pastor Byron Cooper an article about the three teenage boys accused of brutally beating a man in his 70s.

Cooper had started a church in Lexington called Kingdom Purpose Ministries and created a mentoring program called Source of Restoration. The program was designed for offenders who were committed to changing their lives for the better.

Cooper said it seemed that no one wanted to step up and help the three boys accused of committing such a violent crime.

"They're no different than any other person who wishes they could take something back," Cooper said. "It's just that what they did was brutal."

Cooper decided to reach out to the boys and their families. Before they pleaded guilty, Cooper told the boys he wanted them in his program so they could begin to heal from their pasts, learn from their crimes and begin living productive lives.

"This was something I felt spiritually compelled by God to do," Cooper said.

By late 2008, Georgetown, Reynolds and Suter had begun serving their prison terms. That was also the time the state Supreme Court issued a ruling that would give them a chance at probation.

The September 2008 opinion, written by Justice Mary Noble, made youthful offenders who were convicted of violent crimes such as first-degree assault eligible to be considered for probation, a provision that previously was not allowed under state law.

The ruling allowed Georgetown, Reynolds and Suter to return to the courtroom and ask Fayette Circuit Judge Kimberly Bunnell for an opportunity to be released from prison. It also gave them another chance to see their victim and learn what had happened in the aftermath of their attack.

Finding forgiveness

Since the attack, Barnes, now 80, has had heart surgery and survived colon cancer. He's hard of hearing, and the spry gentleman who used to thrive on his independence now relies more on his family than he did before the attack, said Barnes' son Leo Barnes. "And he's still holding his faith," Leo Barnes said.

"He still has a lot of bad days," Barnes said. "He has a few good ones."

During court proceedings about their probation, James Barnes told the court that he would not forget what happened to him, but that he forgave his three attackers.

"We have no hard feelings toward them," Leo Barnes said. "We have to have a forgiving heart or we're not going to heaven."

This year, Bunnell put Georgetown, 20, Reynolds, 19, and Suter, 19, on probation for five years.

"If they really want to get past this, they can do it," Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson said. "The question is how badly they want to succeed."

As a condition of their probation, all three had to enroll in Cooper's 16-month Source of Restoration program and live together in a house the program owns.

"I never believed in miracles" before being admitted into Source of Restoration, Georgetown said. "Now I do."

The three men struggle with being free from the confines of prison while having to live under constant supervision and guidelines.

The three have to follow a strict set of rules.

Each must have a job and be enrolled in school. They have curfews and, when they are out, they must call to check in.

All three say they have gotten in trouble for talking back or coming in late.

"My tongue was real slick," Reynolds said. "I would talk smart to everybody."

Georgetown said he would try to break the rules to see how long he could get away with it.

"I still had that penitentiary mentality," he said.

Georgetown said it took a while for it to dawn on him that he had been given a rare chance to try again.

"This is an opportunity I need to take and run away with," he said.

'They are growing'

Cooper tells the trio that they have to complete this program for themselves, not for anyone else.

"If you do it for you, you'll understand the true purpose of redemption," he said.

If the men don't follow the guidelines of Source of Restoration, they risk violating their probations and going back to prison.

"If they don't do it, I'm not going to hesitate to give them back" to the court system, Cooper said.

Georgetown, Reynolds and Suter spend much of their time pursuing better futures.

They all will be going to school in the spring.

Suter wants to major in something to do with business, he said, so he can start a company based on one of his favorite hobbies, video games.

A few months ago, Reynolds still had ambitions of pursuing a career in football. But he says his bad knee has halted those dreams. Instead, Reynolds wants to go to school for business and eventually open a barbershop.

Georgetown also wants to start his own business — either a construction company or a restaurant. He said he wants to give jobs to convicted felons who have a hard time finding them because of their criminal records.

"They are growing," said Orlando Morris, who helps supervise the three men in Source of Restoration. "You can see that they want better in life."

Suter said they want to use their probations to show people they are sorry for what they did to Barnes.

"I'm not a cold-hearted person," Suter said. "I do care about people."