'Handcuffs to Handshakes' | A journey of forgiveness and friendship

Officer Andrew Collins was making a name for himself racking up drug busts. Jameel McGee was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the two men’s paths crossed, it set in motion a continuing journey that’s been truly unconscionable.

Our Michigan Life: Handcuffs to Handshakes None

BENTON HARBOR, MICH. - Spiritual author, Jack Kornfield has written a couple of famous quotes. One of them is, “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping it kills the other person.”

Another one of his quotes is, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.”

Two men from Benton Harbor, Michigan recently chose to venture down the path forgiveness and reconciliation, after the most unconscionable of circumstances, setting in motion an outcome that’s been truly unbelievable.

This story began in 2003, when Andrew Collins joined the Benton Harbor Police Department. It didn’t take him long to become one of the best cops in the entire shop, recording one arrest after another.

“I was an adrenaline junkie,” said Collins. “I became extremely arrogant and driven by ego and result.

Every bust was like earning a new, shiny trophy for Collins.

“I got to a point where I didn’t even view people as human anymore,” said Collins. “They were almost prizes.”

Collins became so caught up in his own ego, that he falsified search warrants and lied on police reports and as a witness during trials, just to insure he’d get convictions.

“I want the prosecutors to look at my reports and have no questions at all,” said Collins. “Slam-dunk wins meant more accolades for me.

“I never thought for one second I was doing something wrong when I was lying on my reports. The more arrests and convictions I could pile up, the better that was for my career.”

Collins would elevate quickly to become the only narcotics officer in the department.

“What that meant was every work day for me consisted of just driving around and looking for people who I thought were selling drugs,” said Collins. “I didn’t have a partner, so I was out alone all the time.”

On Feb. 8, 2006, Collins was on the hunt, trolling the streets of Benton Harbor looking for drug activity. He ended up catching a guy who was in possession of crack cocaine.

“I told the guy that I’d arrest him unless he told me who he got the drugs from,” said Collins. “The guy immediately made a call to his dealer and set up a time and location where to meet to get more drugs.”

Collins got a description of the target, the make and model of the vehicle he needed to look for, and the location where the drug deal was to go down.

“This was going to be a great bust,” said Collins.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Jameel McGee was getting ready for one of the biggest days of his life.

“It was going to be the first time I was going to see my son,” said McGee. “His mom was driving him to my house, and I was so excited to see my baby.”

McGee realized he didn’t have any food in the house, so he wanted to go to the store to buy some before his son arrived.

“I had been pulled over by police that morning for driving with a suspended license, and didn’t want to risk having that happen again,” said McGee. “There were people visiting my house, and I asked one of the guys if he could give me a ride to the convenience store.”

McGee lived very close to the North Fair Party Store.

“We get to the store, and I get out of his car and go into the store to start shopping,” said McGee.

Moments later, Officer Collins pulls up to the North Fair Party Store and began looking for his suspect and the vehicle description he was given.

“I show up and the vehicle is there,” said Collins. “There was one guy inside the vehicle, but I was certain that wasn’t my guy.

“This other guy comes out of the store. I had never seen him before, so I made the jump that this must be him.”

The guy walking out of the store was Jameel McGee.

“I come out of the store and there’s this guy in my face saying, “Where’s the dope; what do you have for me,” said McGee. “I looked at the guy with a confused look, and tried to walk around him.”

That’s when Collins, who was dressed in street clothes, pulled his badge out and showed it to McGee.

“He kept asking me where the drugs were, and I was getting upset,” said McGee. “I dropped everything in my hands, unbuckled my pants, dropped my pants and raised my shirt, proving I didn’t have what he was accusing me of having.

“I knew this couldn’t continue much longer because I had to get back home to see my son.”

Collins persisted and was certain McGee was his target.

“Things were escalating and I was certain there was going to be an altercation, so I handcuffed Jameel and placed him in the back of my patrol car,” said Collins.

Collins then went over to the vehicle, claimed he smelled marijuana, and used that as probable cause to get around a search warrant and immediately searched the vehicle. It didn’t take long for Collins to find what he was looking for.

“He came walking back over to the patrol car and started dangling this baggie in the window and saying he had me,” said McGee. “I said, ‘whatever that is, it has nothing to do with me.’”

Collins had found an ounce of crack cocaine inside the center console of the vehicle.

“I then detained the gentleman who was in the car, and placed him in the back of my patrol car with Jameel,” said Collins.

Even though the drugs belonged to the man who drove McGee to the store, Collins didn’t want to believe that.

“There was nothing that day that was going to convince me that Jameel McGee was innocent of anything,” said Collins.

McGee looked over at the man sitting next to him in the patrol car, asked him to confess, so the misunderstanding could end, but the man refused, knowing Jameel was in line to take the fall.

“That’s his car, they found it in his truck,” said McGee. “I couldn’t believe this was happening.”

McGee never saw his son that night. He’d be formally arrested and sent to jail. The man who the drugs belonged to was eventually allowed to go free.

“Soon after I arrested Jameel, I was told by somebody in the department that I had arrested the wrong person, and I had the identities mixed up,” said Collins. “But that didn’t matter to me, because I had convinced myself that Jameel McGee was the person who brought those drugs to the store.

“The only mistake I saw was that I didn’t get to the party store fast enough, and I needed to bridge that gap in my report because I didn’t actually see Jameel in possession of the drugs.

Collins decided to write a supplemental report, tailoring the information to benefit him.

“My report read that I saw Jameel as I pulled up, and that he was in the driver’s seat of the vehicle,” said Collins. “It was a complete lie, but that’s what I did – I lied on my reports all the time. I spun information into something that was favorable for me.

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“I saw it as another notch in my belt.

“I didn’t care if Jameel was innocent or guilty; I just wanted the conviction to stick.”

McGee’s case was tried in federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was found guilty. When called to the stand to testify, officer Collins lied under oath, sealing McGee’s fate.

Jameel McGee was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

“A part of me died in that courtroom that day,” McGee said.  

McGee was sent to Milan Correctional Institution, which is located south of Ann Arbor. Soon after he arrived, he became a recluse and no longer cared about anybody or anything. His mindset was in a constant state of anger, and he spent a large portion of his time at Milan plotting out the revenge he wanted to inflict on Andrew Collins.

“Every time I got into a fight in prison, I would picture Andrew’s face,” said McGee. “I took no mercy; I got into so many fights, and would seriously injure people, but I saw it as practice for Andrew.

“When I got out, I was going to find Collins and kill him.”

As time passed behind bars for McGee, he began to reflect on his life and started realizing living in a constant state of rage couldn’t continue.

“One day, I picked up a Bible and started reading it,” said McGee. “One of the verses I read was 2 Chronicles 20:15: ‘For the battle is not yours, but God’s.’”

After reading those words, McGee says he started hearing the words “let it go” inside his head.

“I heard ‘let it go’ over and over,” said McGee. “I felt God was telling me to just let go of everything I was feeling, in particular my anger for Collins.”

While McGee was finding inner peace in prison, and rebuilding his mindset and character, the corrupt world of officer Andrew Collins was starting to unravel.

“My life and career were both a full-blown web of lies,” said Collins.

On Feb. 19, 2008, all of his lies and deceit caught up to him.

“My captain called me into his office that day and said he was taking me out of narcotics,” said Collins. “Then he said he needed to search my office.”

Collins knew he had a small lockbox hidden under his desk that was filled with crack cocaine and drug money that he had confiscated from previous busts, and was planning to use when he felt it was necessary to plant evidence.

“It all came crashing down,” said Collins. “I told people I was on a three-day journey – got caught on Tuesday, then thought about killing myself on Wednesday.”

The internal investigation into Collins’ corruption was massive, and took more than six months. It was discovered that many of Collins’ arrest reports were filled with lies, and that most of his search warrants were bogus.

“I confessed to everything,” said Collins.

“I had to sit down with my superiors and go through every arrest I made and determine which reports were fiction,” said Collins. “The reports that I doctored led to all those convictions having to be overturned, because they were fruit of the poisonous tree.

“Many known drug offenders were able to walk out of prison because of the actions I had done.”

On Dec. 1, 2008, Andrew Collins was indicted. He would go to trial, plead guilty, and be sentenced to 37 months in federal prison.

Collins started his 18-month sentence in January 2009.

Meantime, Jameel McGee had been transferred from Milan Correctional Institution to a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he was expecting to serve out the remaining seven years of his sentence. By this time, he had accepted the reality that he was going to do ten years as an innocent man, and he was just going to have to find a way to make the best of it.

One day, he was outside on the prison grounds doing some work when he heard his name be called. McGee went to the counselor’s office.

“The first thing the counselor said to me was, ‘where would you go if you were released today, tomorrow or six months from now,’” McGee said. “I said, ‘probably my grandma’s house.’”

The counselor then responded by telling McGee, “I will need an address for your grandma’s, because your conviction has been overturned, and you have 15 minutes to leave the prison.”

McGee was absolutely stunned, and would later find out that the reason for his early release was because Andrew Collins had finally been caught for all his wrongdoings, and was imprisoned for them.

Jameel had become a free man just as Collins was beginning to serve his prison sentence.

“I was finally able to meet my son,” said McGee.

In August of 2010, Collins was released from prison, and quickly began volunteering for a Church in the Benton Harbor area.

McGee had been spending a bunch of time making up for the three years he had lost with his son.

It would be one full calendar year later that the paths of these two men would cross again.

“It was summer 2011, and I was volunteering for a Church event in Benton Harbor’s Broadway Park,” said Collins. “I was near the pavilion in the middle of the park.”

By happenstance, McGee was walking by the same park. McGee was looking at all the people in the park as he was stroll by, and one person in particular caught his eye.

“I thought I saw Andrew,” McGee said. “I kept looking and then he turned around, and I was like, ‘that’s him.’”

In that moment, McGee felt all the rage come back.

“My first thought was to just get him,” said McGee. “He’s right here; I can touch him; I can do what I said I was going to do to him.”

Collins was working a snow-cone machine, and handing them out to kids, when he saw a man coming straight for him.

“He didn’t look happy,” said Collins. “As he got closer, I knew I knew him, but I couldn’t figure out right away from where.

“It was apparent he was heading right for me, though.”

McGee reached Collins and offered to shake his hand.

“I take his hand and he says, ‘you remember me,’” said Collins. “I said, ‘Jameel McGee,’ then he gripped my hand extremely tight, to the point I thought he was going to break my hand.”

The intense interaction continued for several minutes, with McGee cussing out Collins.

“I tried to apologize to him, but he wouldn’t accept it,” said Collins. “I didn’t think it was going to end without Jameel taking some swings at me.”

Suddenly, during his fit of rage, with Collins’ hand still firmly in his, a sense of calm came over McGee.

“I heard the words, ‘let it go’, again,” said McGee. “It was as if God quickly met me where I was at and said, ‘hey, what are you doing; this isn’t your fight; remember, we let this go.’”

McGee had to let it go all over again. Eventually, he released Collins’ hand and walked away.

“I remember thinking that I felt lighter and better about myself,” said McGee. “I could have killed him right there in that park, but I chose something different for myself in that moment.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see Andrew Collins again after that day anyways.”

McGee was wrong. Four years later, their paths crossed again.

“I was a manager at Café Mosaic, which is a restaurant and coffee house in downtown Benton Harbor,” said Collins. “Mosaic offers a job placement program for those struggling to find employment.”

Jameel McGee was struggling and decided to take the job placement class offered by Mosaic, and would eventually graduate.

“Every individual who graduates gets placed with a mentor,” said Collins.

McGee’s advisor pulled him aside to let him know who his mentor would be.

“She was like, ‘Andrew Collins,’” said McGee. “I was like, ‘no way, no!’”

After his initial negative reaction, McGee remembered the transformation he underwent in prison, and how he was able to abide by the phrase, "let it go," when he confronted Collins in the park four years prior.

“I decided I wanted to pray about it, so right there in the classroom, I prayed,” said McGee. “When I opened my eyes, my text book was on my desk, and on it were two figures on the side of the mountain, and one was pulling the other one up.

“It became evident to me that God was lining something up.

“They selected him as my mentor?

“How does that even work?

“Something like this doesn’t happen by chance, so I accepted him as my mentor.”

McGee left the classroom in the Michigan Works building and went straight to Café Mosaic to meet with Collins.

The man who wrongfully imprisoned him, kept him from meeting his son for the first time, and robbed him of three years of his life, was about to become his boss.

“When Jameel came in, I immediately began apologizing to him again,” said Collins. “He seemed offended that I was apologizing, and kept waving me off.”

“I told Andrew that everything was forgiven,” said McGee.

“I was blown away that he had forgiven me,” said Collins.

McGee would eventually be hired fulltime at Café Mosaic and would work side-by-side with Collins. The two talked a lot, and really got to know each other.

It didn’t take long before they became best friends.

“I’m closer to Andrew than most of my family members,” said McGee. “I can call him when I’m having any problems and he’ll walk me through them.”

“Jameel has taught me so much,” said Collins. “I still apologize to him every time I see him and he just keeps waving me off.”

It’s been two years since Andrew and Jameel worked together at Café Mosaic, but their lives are far from separated. Andrew Collins is a youth leader for Southwest Michigan Young Life, while Jameel McGee is a housing search and research specialist for Americorps.

They both have careers helping people.

They learned how to help people by helping each other, and sharing life lessons from their journey. For the better part of the past year, the pair have been invited to schools, prisons, churches and universities, all over the United States, to share their empowering journey.

“There’s power in moving on,” said McGee. “God picks his people right, I guess.”

 

Andrew Collins and Jameel McGee wrote a book entitled, “Convicted.” It was published on Sept. 19, 2017. If you’re interested in purchasing it, click here.

If you’d like to meet Andrew and Jameel, they will be appearing at Baker Book House (2768 East Paris Ave. SE) in Grand Rapids on Oct. 3. The book-signing event starts at 7 p.m.

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