I was looking for love everywhere. Physical relationships were my addiction. I never drank or did drugs. The craving for love can be more devastating. It was Earl who gave me large doses of it. He adored me; doted on me. I was 36, he 62. I had his son, Nicolas.
In 1993 Earl popped the question — not for marriage, but for me to become his courier.
When he asked me to deliver drugs for him, it was with no pressure. Earl insisted I think about the job; it had big paydays and big risks. He said if I chose not to, he would still be my sugar daddy. But I agreed without hesitation.
Cheryl Ward enjoyed easy living in a grand five-bedroom house on a hill in West Covina. In addition to Nicolas, she was also raising a second boy, Alvin, a special-needs child given up by both parents. Cheryl took him in as a 29-day-old infant.
Cheryl managed the roles of mother, lover and courier until 1995, when the bottom fell out of her world.
The 1990s marked the proliferation of mandatory minimum drug sentencing rules. Women’s prisons — laid siege to by the war on drugs — were exploding with nonviolent, first-time defendants. The population more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, from 81,000 to 164,000. Between 1980 and 2014, incarceration rates swelled by 700 percent.
Many women were charged with federal drug distribution and conspiracy offenses. Disproportionately Black and Latina, they were usually low-level players and couriers. Like Cheryl, they were often involved in love relationships netting draconian punishments — lengthy sentences — that didn’t fit the crime.
On a fateful morning in 1994, Cheryl was at LAX preparing to board a Cincinnati-bound flight.
I was pulled out of line and patted down and the woman hit against the kilo of cocaine wrapped around me. I told her it was my cash. She let me go, but I was flagged as I deplaned. I had 11 more kilos in my carry-on bag, which I refused to hand over for a search. So they filed for a search warrant right on the spot. I asked to use the restroom, and fled the airport. I left the bag and went on the lam for eight months, eventually hiding out with the kids in Tennessee.
One morning sipping coffee, I watched from the window in horror as van after van sped up the long driveway. On the run again, I hid under the deck. Then I heard the dogs and many footsteps of federal and local police. Next, the cold metal of a .357 Magnum pressed against my forehead.
Cheryl’s first thought was for her boys. She asked if she could be the one to wake them. They rejected that request. She told the social services woman where to find the boys’ clothes, but they ignored her. The boys were hauled away in their pajamas, stamped as abandoned and swallowed into the system.
Prosecutors repeatedly tried to get Cheryl to tell all — snitch — on Earl’s operation. Information she wouldn’t give but couldn’t share because she wasn’t privy to the intricacies of how things worked. Eventually, Earl was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in 1996.
Cheryl had a two-day trial that seemed surreal. Streets around the federal courthouse were cordoned off; helicopters buzzed overhead as a half-dozen armed police surrounded and ushered Cheryl in and out of court. Her heart sank for her mother, who had come to testify as a character witness, subjected to the horrendous scene.
Cheryl was convicted of possession with the intent to distribute, conspiracy and an array of other charges, remanded to federal prison for 21 years and 10 months. She would serve 17 1/2 years in six facilities between California and Connecticut, from 1995 to 2013.
At 61, Cheryl has learned the power of forgiveness and the strength of nurturing. She is a full-time caregiver for her ailing mother. Alvin, her special-needs son, is living in a group home and getting to know her again. The one unforgivable act is that her mother was ready to be full-time caregiver for 4-year-old Nicolas, but for eight months her child was locked in foster care.
Cheryl believes Nicolas, who blocked out all of those early experiences, was held hostage by the government to force her to turn against Earl.
I’ve learned since my release that it should have been routine to return my son to my mom. But they were trying to coerce me and used the security of my innocent little boy against me.
When Nicolas was 11, he questioned why I hadn’t made better choices. I told him I didn’t expect the consequences to be so severe. He told me he’d contemplated suicide. That broke my heart.
My struggle now is to accept that he’s 25, a grown man. We can’t turn back the clock or change the course of time. One day recently I said to him, ‘I guess I can no longer wipe your nose.’ He chuckles quietly about that.
When you go in, you die. When you come out, you’re alive again. Though everything in between for you is frozen in time, your family never stops living. You have to figure out how to fit back in.
Cheryl Ward, 61, is a full-time caregiver to her aging mother who provided care and sustenance to her young son while Cheryl served nearly 18 years of a federal sentence on drug conspiracy charges.
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