Sgt. Robert Adams walks through the Louis Stokes Veteran’s Administration complex with a purpose. He calls out a welcoming greeting for the veterans who are there for treatment or services. Most of the employees greet him by name, “Hey Robbie.”
They don’t know that he lived as a fugitive for 30 years -- working underground in restaurants, construction and landscaping when he could find a job; hoping he wouldn’t be fired or arrested.
Sgt. Adams joined the Marines after a comfortable childhood in Bedford, with a paper route and a Catholic school education. Serving six years in San Diego and Los Angeles, he was promoted twice and left the service with an honorable discharge. With his new wife, he settled
in Los Angeles and started planning a future, taking Lamaze classes in Beverly Hills to prepare for their first child. A few years later, his wife’s cousin introduced them to a new drug, which turned out to be crack cocaine.
It seemed glamorous at first, he says, “then it took hold of me,” and everything fell apart. He was in treatment but the marriage was over and he gave up. Sgt. Adams was sleeping in parks and empty apartments. He served six months in jail for trespassing; then he was arrested again for drug possession.
He called his sister for money – instead of sending it, she moved him back to Cleveland in 1988 where the family could take care of him. When he didn’t appear in court, California issued a warrant. Although he was never convicted on the possession charge, the outstanding bench warrant would haunt him.
He couldn’t get a job because he had a warrant and he couldn’t access any veteran’s benefits because of the VA’s “fugitive felon” rule.
Sgt. Adams struggled to clean up his record, he attended expungement seminars and submitted his paperwork, but without an attorney, prosecutors would ignore his pleas.
“It was all my own fault,” he says. “I wanted to see my kids, I wanted everything back the way it was.”
He was ready to make a change, spending time volunteering at the VA, pushing wheelchairs, attending job-training classes half-heartedly, knowing he wouldn’t be hired. Looking back,
he realizes he had a team of angels at the VA who wouldn’t let him give up. Russ Schafer, a veteran’s advocate and court liaison, sent him to Legal Aid. His Legal Aid lawyers Jami
Altum-McNair and Deborah Dallmann contacted the Public Defender in California for help asking the California court to recall the warrant. The Legal Aid attorneys provided the court with character statements and a heart-rending apology from Sgt. Adams.
“She made me feel like I was invincible, like I could beat anybody,” he observed. The court recalled the warrant and as a result, Sgt. Adams can now receive veteran’s benefits. With
his can-do attitude, he was hired at the VA earning $18 an hour. He bought a car and moved into a new apartment on Lake Erie. Best of all, he was able to renew his relationship with his daughters, ages 30 and 31, and spent Christmas with them.