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Longtime inmate carves out new life of freedom with help of program

Michael Wentz works at Pelsue Co., an engineering and manufacturing company in Englewood. "We're very proud of Mike's journey and delighted to play our part in it," Pelsue chief executive Mark Pelsue said.(Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

By Kirk Mitchell - The Denver Post  -  08/19/2012

There are moments when Michael Wentz is gripped by overwhelming dread.

He'll be walking on a sidewalk in a grassy neighborhood and suddenly panic, sensing he must have broken some rule that would cast him in a punitive-segregation cell at Sterling Correctional Facility, where he has spent most of his life. Then he remembers: He has been legally released from prison and is on his own.

It isn't easy adjusting to freedom after spending 27 years in prison.

Still, with all the pressures of beginning a new life, Wentz, 45, has been able to accomplish goals that until months ago seemed abstract and unattainable. He has done it with assistance from a Colorado Department of Corrections program that helps prisoners adjust to life outside of prison.

State officials believe supporting him in this transition from prison to freedom could have societal benefits, including safer streets. It could help Wentz avoid future missteps that could land him in prison again.

"I want to be an asset to society, not a deficit," Wentz said.

In 1985, Wentz was locked up for good reason.

The then-19-year-old Army soldier and his brother, Theodore, who was two years older, beat up a man they found walking toward a gay bar in Colorado Springs. At the time, Wentz said, he hated gays, in his mind grouping them together with an uncle who had molested him.

The brothers had lured the man into an alley where Theodore hit him over the head from behind with a bat, Wentz said. They drove the man in his own car to a remote area of El Paso County, where Theodore stabbed him five times, he said. The man survived the attack.

The last time a reporter from The Denver Post spoke with him, Wentz was sitting in a circle of convicts deep within Sterling's "kill fence" in June 2011. The group of men participating in the "pilot" Lifetime Offender Program exchanged ideas about how to survive prison release to freedom after spending most of their lives behind bars.

"When I was in there, I told myself I have these goals in life and I wasn't going to let what I did in the past dictate what I would do in the future," Wentz said. "I didn't let anything stand in my way."

The weekly meetings helped prepare him for his release from Sterling in March to a halfway house.

Since his release, Wentz has been meeting with prison mentors every other week. During his first day of intensive supervision, he was confused about curfew and his limits and called another inmate who explained the rules to him.

He applied for and was hired at Pelsue Co., an Englewood engineering and manufacturing firm. He also got a job as a tattoo artist at Endless Ink Tattoo and Spa near Interstate 70 and Quebec Street.

Pelsue, which retrofits vans for utility companies and manufactures safety equipment and tents that go over manholes during maintenance work, hired him to help retrofit vans by installing clean laboratories used in the field by utility-company workers as they perform tasks such as fiber-optic splicing.

Wentz said that when he came to Pelsue, he didn't expect special privileges because of his publicized talent as a graphic artist that he had developed in prison. Many of the walls inside Sterling are covered with giant murals he painted. Wentz's paintings sold in galleries for as much as $2,000.

Wentz was a quick learner who eagerly worked overtime when called upon, said his former supervisor, Jose Rodriguez. Pelsue is a relatively small company and can't afford to have employees who are dead weight, Rodriguez said.

"He's very smart," Rodriguez said of Wentz. "He has a great attitude. He never complains and did whatever I asked."

In a few months, Wentz moved to a position in the company's fabrication shop. He was a full-time employee, getting medical benefits and paid vacations.

In May, another position came open.

Wentz got the job, which usually required applicants to have a college degree in drafting or engineering. In prison, he had earned an associate's degree in computer-aided drafting, but most of the computer software he uses to create schematic drawings he had taught himself to use.

On his computer, he has created three-dimensional drawings of how Pelsue products are assembled. He has created realistic drawings of products yet to be built.

In the afternoon, he dons another hat and works in the marketing office. He has been redesigning the company's catalog, giving it more of a commercial feel rather than an institutional one. He has quite an eye for it, said Pelsue chief executive Mark Pelsue.

"We're very proud of Mike's journey and delighted to play our part in it," Pelsue said.

While Wentz has moved up through the ranks of Pelsue, he has had to abide by stringent rules under the supervision of his parole officer, Matthew Cooper. But Cooper has been flexible, allowing Wentz to work longer hours when it was essential that he work overtime, Wentz said.

Cooper said Wentz so far has strictly followed release rules. Wentz has also reached personal milestones.

He recently proposed marriage to Donna Novotny. He passed a driver's-license test and bought a 2000 Jeep Wrangler. He has moved into his own house, which he shares with his fiancée.

Kirk Mitchell: 303-954-1206, facebook.com/kmitchelldp or twitter.com/kmitchelldp