CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities) office worker, Christopher Williams, hugs Shane Lara, CEO site supervisor, on Lara’s last day of employment. CEO is a non-profit that provides job training and rehabilitation to formerly incarcerated people. Williams was given a second chance at employment through CEO after serving 15 years in prison for a second degree murder conviction, committed when he was a teen. Credit: John Walker / The Fresno Bee

This story is the eight of the Broken Ladders series, exploring why so many in Fresno can’t climb out of poverty and what different organizations are doing to help create better job pathways. The series is made possible with support from the James Irvine Foundation.

Programs like the Center for Employment Opportunities make all the difference in the lives of formerly incarcerated people, like Christopher Williams, 37, who now works as an assistant at the CEO office in Fresno, doing office work and filling in wherever he is needed.

Williams’ greatest talent is his powerful presence and an ability to tell the story of his lived experience – of having been there – of his previous lawless life, his time in the state’s worst prisons, learning his lesson, and now his redemption.

Of his present life, Williams said, “It’s kind of bittersweet. I say that it is bitter, because I took someone’s life, but if that situation would have never happened, I probably wouldn’t grow into the man I am today.”

Williams was convicted of second degree murder for killing Adam McKinnis on Jan. 4, 2004, while fleeing from the CHP. He served 15 years, an experience he said transformed his life. He was paroled and left prison in November 2019.

The CEO program had not come to Fresno at the time of William’s release from prison, so he did not directly use those services. He was part of another program — the Northern California Construction Training (NCCT) — which places formerly incarcerated people, as well as residents of high-risk communities, into skilled trades.

Williams said he was determined to succeed and adapt as quickly as possible. “I looked into pretty much all different programs, and what it was gonna take me, and just capitalized on what programs are there for me,” he said.

“I just took advantage of all that stuff, like whatever I can get that’s going to help me move forward in my life.”

When Williams discovered CEO, he had already survived the first year, post release. So his goal was not to benefit from job coaching, training and retention services, the typical way others do. His association with CEO is as a coach, sort of – sharing stories of his own life, his errors and of his atonement. He vows to tell others about his mistakes, the misguided choices he made that caused the loss of another’s life and how he is turning things around.

Williams did not act so wisely in his early life, and he blames a lot of his mistakes on his upbringing, particularly his mother.

“My mom was an addict, so it kind of forced me out to the streets. And in the streets, I started hanging around the neighborhood, hanging around older guys. And then that’s where I got my influences from,” he said.

“They introduced me to certain jobs and to some of the drugs, and I started picking that up as a hobby.” But for Williams, it became much more than a hobby; he started making money off of drugs. He did a few stints at the juvenile hall, the longest term lasting six months.

“I used to see my mom blowing smoke into my sister’s mouth. So it wasn’t a secret that I knew what she was doing because I was smart,” he said. “It is just so crazy now that I look back on it – that the same thing that my mom was addicted to, I picked up as a hobby and started selling it to other people’s moms and dads.”

In the ‘absence’ of his parents and any stability, Williams assumed responsibility for his siblings. “Money was more important. Because as I grew up, I had nothing. The money from the drug was kind of helping me buy my clothes, helping me look out for my sisters and stuff like that,” he said.

“It was like the typical stuff you see on TV, when people actually sell drugs or whatever, and they go to the shoe box to get Mama money for rent or whatever.”

The family moved around a lot, and he remembers being caught in the act of selling drugs at least three times by the police, but each time, he made bail because of the shoe box under his bed.

“Because they allowed bail,” he said, “I began to believe I was untouchable.” Williams said he became more and more brazen in his involvement with drug sales, “This was my career.”

That “career” ended on that January day when he collided with McKinnis, an innocent man, on Ashlan and Hwy 99. At the time of the accident, McKinnis, his wife and 15-month-old son were on their way to church.

Williams was 19. Although injured, he struggled out of the car and fled the scene, hiding in someone’s backyard, he said. “They caught me like three hours later. They had the helicopter, and they knew the neighborhood where I was.”

His initial charge of bodily injury, theft and drug possession was upgraded to second degree murder once his victim died. “I’m not really sure of his [McKinnis] age, but I know he was too young,” Williams said. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life.

His prison residency started in Wasco.

“In the beginning, it was kind of rough, just trying to get the gist of what prison is, the things you have to learn because I was young and had never been to prison before,” he said. “So now, it is me getting in with the older guys, and then trying to learn stuff about prison that I don’t know nothing about.”

Williams said he had to grow up quickly, “because Mama can’t save you when you’re there; you’ve got to pretty much stand on your own two feet in there.” He learned “how to be alert; how to not disrespect nobody, not let nobody disrespect you.”

About midway in his service, eight years before his parole, Williams decided he was done with the criminal life.

“I just made a decision that this is not what I want to do, like this is not why I was born,” he said. “I want to do right. I want to go home.”

He enrolled in classes and got his GED and earned a few college credits, but he knew he needed to do more.

“I did a lot of soul searching and a lot of reflecting on what I actually did to this family that didn’t deserve what I did,” he said. “So by just looking back at myself, I got to learn and know myself. And then that’s when I started treating people like humans, and then that’s how I learned remorse.”

Williams said he was finally able to learn empathy, putting himself in the shoes of the family of his victim.

“They didn’t deserve it,” he said. “I was an awful person back then, which is worse, because I didn’t know that.”

“I know that I hurt a family, and I know that he had children, and they didn’t get to see their father or grow up with their father because of something that I did,” he said.

Things started to turn around once he made the decision to change. “They [parole board] saw my remorse, and that’s why they decided to give me a second chance,” he said.

Now, all he wants is a chance to talk with McKinnis’ family. “I haven’t had a chance to personally apologize to them directly. That’s something that I want to do, but I’m not sure if they are still here. It’s been a long time, but I haven’t had a chance to, and this is an issue that always bothers me.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.