Frederick Williams was dropped off at the Baton Rouge-area probation and parole office on Nov. 1 with about 20 other ex-prisoners from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center.
He had recalled looking around on the bus thinking, 'You going to make it? I’m going to make it.’
Forty-nine days later, on a mild December afternoon, the 57-year-old proudly signed his application for an apartment off Greenwell Springs Road, a red tie in his white button-down shirt.
“You will never have a problem with me,” Williams told the apartment manager, grinning. “This is my start.”
Williams had been working on a list since his release from prison: reconnect with family, obtain his driver's license, find an apartment, get a job. He had been slowly moving forward, checking off his successes, trying not to get discouraged.
But then, around 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 20 — the day after he was offered a job as a cook with the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging, the last big milestone he wanted to reach — paramedics responded to a call about a person in the roadway. Williams was found seriously injured on Greenwell Springs Road, his bike nearby, about a mile from his apartment. He was taken to the hospital and released the following afternoon, his family said.
His sister picked him up, stopped at Walgreens for his prescribed medicine and took him to her Baker home. Within hours of his hospital release, Williams died.
The coroner said the cause of death was blunt-force impact to the chest with multiple rib fractures and right hemothorax, a collection of blood in the space between the chest wall and the lung.
"We wanted to give him a chance. We were excited to have him," said James Gilmore, the Council on Aging chief administrative officer, who had just hired Williams. "I was honored to have had a chance to meet him and give his family comfort knowing that he was on the right track … but God must have had a bigger purpose for all of this."
During his hospital stay, Williams told his brother that he was hit by a car while riding his bike. Police, however, said the bike sustained no damage. His brother said he also does not think the injuries are consistent with being struck by a vehicle.
Investigators don't believe he was struck by a vehicle, said Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. Don Coppola. The coroner ruled the death an accident.
"I just wanted answers for my brother," said Morris Williams. "He really was on the right path, he gave his life to Christ. … I just know he was trying to do the right thing."
Morris Williams said he doesn't know what led to his brother's death, but he does question why Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center released him in the shape he was in.
An OLOL spokesman declined to comment on the case, citing patient privacy.
Frederick Williams had been in and out of jail since age 19, but five years ago something clicked and he knew it was time to change, he had told The Advocate. So when he got out of prison under Act 280 five days before his previously scheduled release date, he felt ready.
He had been in prison for possession of cocaine, simple burglary and theft of goods over $500. The combined sentences would have reached just over 20 years, according to Department of Corrections records.
“All I know is that I don’t ever want to go to jail again,” Williams said. “I gave up 37 years of my life incarcerated. I’m doing whatever I can today to stay free.”
Williams said the best part of being free was being able to get to meet and know his four grandchildren.
“They all came to see Pawpaw,” Williams said, breaking into easy laughter at the thought of their time together. “Wow, it was just great.”
Williams made an effort to reach out for help in his transition, to family, friends, even nonprofit organizations — something he knew he didn't do in the past.
“It’s another step. I’m stepping out in faith,” Williams said. “I’ve never really asked for help from anyone, so this is new to me.”
With the help of a housing program through Volunteers of America, which was paying his first three months' rent while he got on his feet, Williams had moved into his own apartment.
Finding a job wasn't easy. He tried fast food restaurants, car dealerships, anything that seemed promising. Nothing was coming through, but he didn't stop trying.
His parole officer, Thomas Eskola II, said he can’t hold every client’s hand but he does what he can to encourage them and connect them to resources.
“Most people, at least initially, have good intentions,” Eskola said. “But little things are devastating to these people, like losing a job or not finding a job. … It will really set some of them back, and then it just kind of spirals.”
But Williams persevered. Early on, he thought he had a good shot at a job at a fried chicken chain, but weeks later he discovered he had missed two portions of the online application.
He also had hoped to get a vehicle — his brother had given him $2,400. But after spending some of that money to get his driver’s license, on top of other expenses, he was stuck using the bus or relying on friends and family for a ride. But he did show off his brand-new driver’s license — the first one he had held since 1976.
“I’ve been putting just one foot in front of another,” Williams said. “I’m OK today. I’m OK with taking my time today. I’m OK if I run into a bump in the road.”
Gilmore said that when he was interviewing Williams for the Council on Aging job, he asked about the almost eight-year gap in his resumé. Williams answered honestly about his incarceration and about his desire to make a future for himself.
Gilmore said that after walking Williams out, he was further impressed to see the man walk over to a bike. Williams explained that was how he made it to the interview.
"He told me, 'I wasn't going to miss this,' " Gilmore said.