Serving time at Michigan City, Sanford now works to educate youth to help them avoid trouble.
MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. -
Our community’s sense of safety is eroding. The per capita homicide rate in Indianapolis last year was higher than the murder rates in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York, and this year's numbers are going even higher.
From Carmel, south to Broad Ripple and Beech Grove, violent crime is the talk of the city and suburbs. Almost as shocking as the skyrocketing crime rate is the age of some of the criminals.
What societal factors prompt a kid as young as 13 to commit a crime as violent as murder? In search of answers, we went inside one of the state’s toughest prisons to speak to the youngest convicted murderer in Indiana history.
In a 6-by-9 foot cell in Michigan City’s maximum security Indiana State Prison, Ronald Sanford has grown from a boy of 15 to a man of 40. Even Sanford has noticed a shift in the prison demographics.
“People committing crime are now different,” Sanford said. “14-, 15-, 16-year-olds [are regularly being arrested], and I always say the median age of people in prison has gone down.”
Sanford bears the dubious distinction of being the youngest male ever sent to adult prison for murder in Indiana. He has his philosophy written on the wall of his cell: “No man’s your friend. No man’s your enemy. Every man is your teacher.”
In prison, he’s had 25 years to consider how a single choice became his singular destiny--how a boy of 13 went from mowing lawns to committing murder.
“If I have to die in prison, that’s my lot for a choice I made when I was 13 years old,” Sanford said.
Sanford was convicted of the 1987 stabbing deaths of 83-year-old Anna Harris and 87-year-old Julia Belmare, sisters who lived in his neighborhood near Crown Hill Cemetery. Sanford has spent nearly 10,000 days and nights behind bars, haunted by the ghost of regret.
“I try to put myself in the positions of the victims," he said. “It’s something terrible. What if somebody murdered my grandmother or my mother? How do you get over that? You never will.”
Sanford’s downward spiral is a cautionary tale, one we captured on videotape and found in our WTHR archives. In May of 1987, Channel 13 cameras videotaped 13-year-old Ronald Sanford in the back of a police car after he had been rounded up with a large group for cutting class at Shortridge Middle School. By then, he was already on probation for petty crimes and had spent time in the juvenile center.
Sanford recalled that his life at home was turbulent.
“My Mom was an alcoholic on welfare. She had many suitors. She was physically abusive.”
Sanford’s late father, a local amateur boxer, left the family when Sanford was a toddler. Sanford saw him occasionally around town, sometimes standing on street corners, shadowboxing. They rarely visited with one another.
“I didn’t have any fatherly influence and I think if I had had that, I wouldn’t be in prison,” he said.
Sanford recalled the influence of his peer group, especially during the hours after class.
“Trouble was between the hours of school ending and the street lights coming on,” Sanford said.
In August 1987, three months after the truancy incident, Sanford made the choice that changed his life and ended two others.
“School was out," he recalled. "It was summer break and my mom had left town, so I was home alone.”
Sanford and 15-year-old Sean Rowe went door-to-door offering to mow lawns to earn money for a day at the Indiana State Fair. But the plan suddenly changed.
“I was somehow convinced the ladies next door had some money and we could go over there and we could take their money. Forget cutting the grass. And it turned into a murder.”
The elderly sisters were found in the basement, stabbed multiple times. For days, the neighborhood was on edge after the bodies were discovered. A young Ronald Sanford actually stood beside his mother and watched as police removed the bodies. His mother had no idea at the time that her son had committed the murders.
It didn’t take police long to track down the killers.
Sean Rowe, 15, testified against Ronald Sanford in exchange for a reduced sentence. Sanford showed no remorse and the judge gave him a record sentence for a teenager - 170 years in adult prison.
Sanford said he was terrified walking into the Michigan City Prison at age 15.
“They wouldn’t let me have a job [in prison] because it was dangerous.”
Ironically, male mentors arrived in the form of several older inmates his father’s age, who protected him.
“It was dangerous for a kid to be here,” Sanford said of his early days.
In 25 years behind bars, Sanford has lived on every cellblock but death row.
“No matter how tough you are or smart you are, there are people tougher or smarter in prison.”
When asked what he would tell a kid heading down the same road he did, Sanford doesn’t hesitate.
“I would ask him, ‘Do you want to be me? Just because you’re a child, don’t think they won't deal with you like they dealt with me because of something I did when I was your age'.”
That’s where Project MR, an acronym for ‘male responsibility’ comes in. Twice a year, 100 young black men - some just out of juvenile lockup - get up early on Saturday mornings in Indianapolis for six weeks of character boot camp. The young men gather in a huge circle. Many of them have been in juvenile lockup for petty crimes or worse. A leader paces back and forth like a drill sergeant, asking them questions and challenging them.
“How many of you, when you came to the first session or any session, didn’t want to come?”
Some hands go up. One of them belongs to Daval Franklin, who rolls his eyes and shifts his feet.
At 16, Daval has been in and out of trouble with the law.
“I don’t live with my parents. My parents have issues, so I was adopted when I was 4,” Daval said.
Though his grandmother is raising him, he still gets in physical fights with his father, an alcoholic.
Volunteer mentors with Project MR model more civil behavior for the young men.
“It’s one thing to tell a person what to do," said Jonathan Jones, who oversees the Project MR program. “It’s another thing to teach a person what to do.”
Jones paces the room, addressing relevant topics that are later discussed in small group settings.
“There are men in this room who have never seen their fathers. Ask yourselves, 'Were they responsible males?'”
14-year-old Kendall English said he looks forward to Project MR each week. Unlike many of the boys, he has both a mother and father at home. Kendall English also has a high IQ, but he is what Jonathan Jones calls a classic follower, one who has amassed a substantial juvenile record.
“I was with my buddies and we stole from a house," Kendall said openly, with a slight smile on his face.
Kendall spent a month and a half in the juvenile facility, where he picked up new tricks and an even rougher posse. When asked how he plans to change his behavior, Kendall paused before speaking.
“I suppose I will see people who do the right thing and do what they do. I’m not saying I’m a follower, but I have to learn how to follow before I learn how to lead. So I hope that will work out for me.”
It didn’t work out Ronald Sanford, who said the system needs an overhaul.
“You cannot take a child and lock them up! It hurts them," Sanford said. "You’re messing up their mind. They are still in the formulative stage of their life. They need to be nurtured.”
Sanford said with very few exceptions, he believes the problems begin with neglect or abuse.
“It is coming out of the homes. I will stand on that until the day I die," Sanford said. “You don’t see people who have been nurtured, who have been given the tools to succeed as citizens in society, break the law.”
It took prison to set Sanford on a path toward personal growth. He obtained first a GED then went on to graduate from college. He has held various jobs in the prison.
Even his mother sobered up, went back to school and now visits him regularly.
“Education is the number one tool,” Sanford said, “because education opens up changes in one’s perspective.”
Sanford now speaks from prison to youth groups about choices and consequences.He wants teenagers to know what he missed.
“I have never driven a car. I never had a job. I don’t have any children. I’ve never been on an airplane.”
Sanford knows that getting through to kids on the edge of trouble is an uphill battle.
“It’s tough to talk to a child and say something they’re going to heed because it's just words. You have to do it over and over.”
Ron Sanford will not be eligible for parole for another 60 years at the age of 100.
“Believe me. They will take your life from you if you give it to them,” he said. “I was given 170 years and, if nothing changes, I am going to die in this prison. It’s all about your choices.”