MEDICAL LAKE, Spokane County - Simon Roberts is becoming a man, though not quite the way his tribal elders once hoped.
The boy who robbed and nearly killed an Everett pizza deliveryman 4 1/2 years ago, who was supposed to find redemption through his banishment to an Alaskan island, marked his 21st birthday Dec. 29 guarded behind loops of barbed wire at a prison near Spokane.
But he stands tall, where he once slumped and glowered. He has earned a GED diploma, though he was once called unteachable. He pledges he can mature into an adult who contributes to his Tlingit tribe and to his country.
But a top prison official says it will be a challenge, given Roberts' less-than-perfect record while serving time and his refusal to take responsibility for those problems.
Roberts, who is scheduled for release next Wednesday, used an aluminum baseball bat in the attack on pizza deliveryman Tim Whittlesey. Roberts and an accomplice, Adrian Guthrie, got $60 in the robbery.
The case sparked a unique experiment in "tribal justice" that made headlines from The New York Times to tabloid TV.
The real test for Roberts begins when he is released from prison. He has said he's sorry, and has worked to become a better person.
"I wanted to be somebody some day. I wanted everyone to know my name," he said recently in his first interview since entering prison.
"I got it, but in the wrong way."
Confidence and concerns
Roberts and Adrian Guthrie, members of the Tlingit tribe of Southeast Alaska, were banished by a tribal court in 1994. After they pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge James Allendoerfer postponed his sentence to let the tribe try to rehabilitate its own.
Hailed as a bold experiment at first, the banishment was cut short 13 months later, after reports of infighting among tribal members and interference from media and family. Allendoerfer then sent the two teenagers to prison: two years and seven months for Guthrie, and four years and seven months for Roberts. Guthrie, released from prison in 1996, got a lesser sentence because he only participated in the robbery, not the assault.
The months of banishment, Roberts said, made him grow up. He realized he had been a disrespectful "child" with a chip on his shoulder.
But, if the banishment made him want a better life, prison may have given him the structure to build one.
He has spent the past few months at the state's Pine Lodge Pre-Release Facility, which helps inmates ease back into society.
He previously had spent time at other prisons around the state.
He talks now of following the "Red road" of spiritual purity that he strayed from in his teens. Spurred by the banishment, he began following Native-American customs in prison, attending weekly spiritual meetings, going to sweat lodges, growing his hair long.
He has worked at learning Native-American history and politics, threading those stories into the rap songs he writes. He took courses in anger management, and in avoiding drug and alcohol abuse.
A public-speaking class helped him combat the shyness that even his judges had noted.
Now he speaks in a formal and articulate voice, dressed in a neat sweater and slacks instead of the baggy clothes he used to like.
When he gets out, he says, he wants to buy a pair of wingtip shoes.
Rap songs and Wall Street
He has ambitious plans: going to college, recording his rap songs, being a stockbroker like a relative.
He wants to use his new skills to be a motivational speaker, telling students about the fear and humiliation of being shackled to another inmate for a cold, seven-hour bus ride. He'd teach kids that "they don't want to end up here."
His mother, Pamela Huteson of Lynnwood, who will drive to Spokane to bring her son home, is confident he will stay out of trouble. "I've seen a lot of growth," she said.
But his prison record does raise some warning signs.
Although he is being released 16 months early, he lost some earned "good time" for two infractions, and had some other minor ones, said Ernie Packebush, superintendent of Pine Lodge Pre-Release Facility.
Roberts tested positive for drugs in 1996, which Roberts claims was from cold medication. He also was terminated from one of his two work-release jobs, a warehouse job Roberts had likened to slavery.
"He always has a reason for the infractions that might be different than the reason we think," Packebush said. "I think it's safe to say that if he continues to act like he's acting now, he won't make it."
Roberts' challenge is to avoid the fate of his partner in crime, who got out of prison in August 1996.
Troubles follow Guthrie
Adrian Guthrie, a distant cousin, is now serving time in an Alaskan jail for assault and other crimes and may face additional time for other violations here and in Alaska.
Guthrie, 21, has blamed his continuing problems on his notoriety, saying it is difficult to find work.
When Roberts is released, he'll face the same pressures: re-entering the world stripped of anonymity, with a name and face - and crime - that ring bells of recognition for potential employers or friends.
Though the banishment was dismissed by many as a failure, Roberts and his family see it as the key that turned his life around.
"It brought his culture right in his face," said his mother. "It wasn't something that was dead. It wasn't something like, `Oh, I'm a Native and so to show that, I dance; or to show that, I'll speak a few (Tlingit) words.' He found out that his culture was alive."
At the tribal-court hearing in his hometown of Klawock, Alaska, Roberts was forced to wear his clothes inside out to show his disgrace as judges considered his crime.
It was a violent one: Hoping to steal money to buy Guthrie a bus ticket home to Canada, the teenagers used a pay phone to order a pizza to a home in Everett on Aug. 31, 1993. Guthrie hid in the bushes while Roberts was under a stairwell.
When Whittlesey walked by, Roberts swung the bat, saying he only wanted to knock him out. Instead, the blow fractured the skull.
Roberts took $60 from Whittlesey's pockets and the boys ran.
On Sept. 5, 1994, Roberts watched the tribal judges - including his grandfather - sail away in a fishing boat after leaving him on the remote Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska.
He had Spam, cereal and other supplies, and an emergency beacon, which he used one day in an appendicitis attack.
He lived in a 12-by-16 cabin with a tarp roof. Mornings he spent cutting firewood, building shelves and a desk in his cabin, carving yellow alder into halibut hooks.
Afternoons he paced the beach, watching the big waves crashing. He used tubing and hose to pipe water to his cabin. He wrote songs. He was so isolated that the sound of his own voice would startle him sometimes.
The Bible in his supplies brought him no solace. "What kind of God would throw a person in a lake of fire for making mistakes?" he said. "I don't want that."
Instead, he dwelled on his past problems day after day, and reached his own sort of epiphany.
He decided that nearly every bad situation in his life could have been avoided if he had acted differently.
For the first time, he considered the pain he had caused Whittlesey and the victim's family, and said he felt remorse that continues today.
"There's no way I could take (the crime) back at all. If there was a way, I wish I could," he said.
He wouldn't take back the banishment, though, saying it was "time to mature and grow up."
But Snohomish County authorities saw problems instead of much progress.
Although the teens seemed to be doing well at first, they had to be moved to a new set of islands after the National Forest Service found they had been placed on federal land. But those islands were close to Craig, Alaska, and reports sprouted of unauthorized visits to town, and media and family visits that corrupted the experiment's purpose.
Allendoerfer called for an accounting, and got conflicting recommendations from tribal factions. He said he had seen some improvement in the teens, and wanted to cancel the banishment while he could still consider it a success.
Roberts blames the banishment controversies on Guthrie; Guthrie did not answer a letter sent from The Seattle Times to his jail in Alaska asking for his side of the story.
The banishment was once watched in the judicial system as a potential precedent-setter. It's no longer seriously considered as such, particularly after a state appeals court ruled that banishment must be an addition, not a substitution, to a traditional sentence.
For now, only Roberts' and Guthrie's future will serve as examples.
Roberts will learn over the coming years whether a 21-year-old with a $42,000 restitution bill, a still-limited education - but a wealth of unusual experiences - can meet the many goals he set in confinement or fall back into a life of crime.
`Odds are with him'
"The odds are with him," said Sid Sidorowicz, assistant secretary for the state Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, noting that most young men commit fewer crimes as they grow older.
"If he can make it for the next year and a half, he's a likely candidate to not re-offend."
Roberts will need to find a way to start paying his restitution bill. That's the requirement that tripped up Guthrie. Corrections officers asked that Guthrie be sent back to jail when he failed to begin his $155 monthly payments. He has since made some payments.
Those restitution payments would not go to Whittlesey, but to the state Labor and Industries Department, which helped to cover his medical bills and lost wages.
Roberts said he's confident that living a productive life can be no harder than the challenges he faced during the banishment and prison.
"I'm trying to learn from it. I'm trying to grow from it," he said. "I'm trying to move on."
His victim, Whittlesey, is also trying to move ahead in his life, though he will probably never fully recover. Because of the beating, Whittlesey, 29, is partially deaf and has memory problems. He was divorced, he said, partly due to the strains of his life after the beating.
Victim builds new future
But he feels things are getting better. He's studying electrical engineering at a technical school in Bothell, working in a hospital's medical-records department, and living on his own in Everett after living with his parents for the years after the beating.
Whittlesey recently received custody of his 9-year-old daughter and looks forward to creating a good home for her.
He said he doesn't have feelings of any sort toward Roberts, but prays that his attacker will make a better life for himself.
"My life has gone on and I can't dwell in the past. I just have to keep looking forward from here."
He would be happy, he said, to learn that Roberts grew into a good man.
Rebekah Denn's phone message number is 425-745-7804. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org