After serving time for part in home invasion, James Elliott has turned education and telling his story to inspire others on a journey to do better.
Jennifer Corbett, Wilmington
WILMINGTON- With guns drawn, plainclothes Newark police officers ordered 19-year-old James Elliott to lie on the front lawn of his parents’ house in 2011, days after he had committed a violent armed robbery in search of money and drugs.
When Elliott looked up during his arrest, he saw his shocked father, John, watching from the living room window with fear in his eyes, not knowing at first that the men were police officers.
“It was so surreal,” Elliott says.
After serving nearly six years in prison and returning to school, Elliott now can look into his father’s eyes and see joyful pride.
His son defied the odds and was named one of the top 20 community college students in the nation for his post-prison studies at Delaware Technical Community College.
Topping that off, just last week Elliott beat 13 others to be elected the international president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, the first ex-con to be elected to that office.
In addition to his studies, Elliott focuses on prison reform. He volunteers for a program that helps convicted felons navigate the system to obtain pardons and expungements, the process that allows low-level criminal records to be erased.
Earlier this month, Elliott spoke at Legislative Hall in Dover, Delaware, in support of a Senate bill that would allow one-time felons and those convicted of misdemeanors to have their records expunged.
While everyone from Del Tech officials to Phi Theta Kappa honor society leaders marvel at Elliott’s redemption, his mother, Robin, says she always knew he would bounce back.
What he did on that windy night at Newark’s University Courtyard Apartments — a home invasion while armed with a gun that left the victim with a broken eye socket — was not who he was, she said.
“So I told him, ‘We have to get you through this. We have no choice,'” said Robin Elliott, who regularly visited Elliott in prison with his father. “It’s just a bump in the road.'”
When Elliott entered the home with a gun — he says it wasn’t loaded — in search of drugs and a safe believed to be full of cash he was surprised to find five people there playing video games.
One of Elliott’s accomplices used the butt of a baseball bat to shatter the orbital socket of one of them, and Elliott realized the robbery had taken a turn for the worse.
While Elliott held the gun on the group, his accomplices took the injured victim to the room where the safe was. The victim fought back again, pulling the mask off one of the accomplices who knew the victim through buying drugs.
“I go into the room to see what’s happening and they are physically beating this guy,” said Elliott, who fled with his accomplices and the safe. His co-conspirators didn’t tell him that the mask had come off.
The robbers found $700 in the safe along with credit card paperwork, according to court documents, and $140 from the victim’s wallet. (Elliott said they made off with closer to $2,000 that night, along with a half pound of marijuana.)
Elliott’s accomplices were arrested a couple of days after the robbery because the victim identified one of the suspects.
Elliott didn’t know they had been arrested. But a few days later, he was returning to his parents’ home when he saw a police car in the neighborhood. He had a feeling they were after him, so he drove away.
When he returned later, he didn’t see a police car and decided to go inside.
When he got out of his car, Newark officers appeared, ordering him to the ground at gunpoint.
How it started
Elliott now can point to his middle school years at Wilmington Christian School in Hockessin as the start of the spiral of behaviors that led him to jail. He felt as though he was being treated differently because he was biracial.
“I identified as a problem child. I liked to act out,” admits Elliott, who was starting to drink and smoke marijuana.
After leaving Wilmington Christian School for Newark High in 10th grade, the problems escalated.
He stopped going to class and began attending house parties, and was both taking and dealing drugs.
Once he started dealing, he soon learned that violence and drug dealing often go hand in hand.
“I wouldn’t consider myself violent by nature, but when you’re dealing drugs you’re thrown into situations — it’s inherently violent,” he said.
During his senior year, he was on the receiving end.
Elliott had just purchased a pound of marijuana and mushrooms, which he says he could have sold on the street for $2,500 at the time, and had it stolen during a snatch-and-grab at a party.
“It hit me hard. I was failing and not doing well in life, but I was happy with what I was doing. Nothing bad had happened to me yet,” he recalled.
At the time, he was high every day, a situation he now believes zapped him of the purpose that drives him today.
After he was robbed, a friend told him he’d seen a safe at Newark’s University Courtyard Apartments while buying marijuana and suggested they should rob the place.
A week later, Elliott, decided to join a trio of accomplices. Elliott had the gun, and his friends bought a bat. The third accomplice was outside acting as the getaway driver.
Once inside, the gun was drawn, the bat smashed a face and lives changed forever, especially Elliott’s.
After his arrest
A few days later, he would be sitting alone in Wilmington’s Howard R. Young Correctional Institution, unable to post $112,000 secured bail.
Elliott was charged with a grab bag of offenses: first-degree robbery, first-degree assault, second-degree conspiracy, six counts of aggravated menacing, possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony and wearing a disguise during the commission of a felony.
“Leading up to that moment, I was living in a different reality,” Elliott said. “I didn’t think I would ever get in trouble because I was a bad kid and there weren’t ever really any consequences for it.
“I thought I’d be bailed out and it would be a slap on the wrist.
“I was wrong.”
Doing the time
Before Elliott mixed with the prison’s population at Howard, he spent several days in total isolation in what he calls “the butt naked room.”
After learning he wouldn’t be bailed out and while still withdrawing from his drug use, Elliott told officials he wanted to commit suicide, leading to his confinement.
“Looking back, I don’t know if I really did want to kill myself. I think I was just scared to go into general population,” recalled Elliott, wearing a tailored pink suit, a far cry from the thin prison-issued gown he wore after his suicide threat. “I’m sure I was thinking about it, but I don’t think I would ever have the balls to do that.”
Elliott was 5-3 and weighed 105 pounds at the time of his arrest, according to court documents, but he was never assaulted or threatened in prison.
Over the years, he found peace working at the prison’s chapel as an assistant — the rare job where prisoners can work unsupervised.
He realized he enjoyed giving back to others, creating and facilitating programs for prisoners and even mentoring some with GED tutoring.
“Prison does not rehabilitate people, so he took the steps himself,” John Elliott says of his son.
At the same time, Elliott enrolled in correspondence courses via Ohio University, which offers correctional education online.
Soon, the Elliott who now has excelled at school began to break out of the shell of disappointment and shame he had built around himself.
“The chapel became an oasis, a sanctuary for me where I could do my school work and not feel like a felon while I was doing it,” he said. “And then I began to succeed and that success gave me the confidence for the rest of my life. That’s why I work so hard at school today.”
After serving five-and-a-half years of his seven-year sentence, Elliott was transferred to Plummer Community Corrections Center in Wilmington in May 2016 for work release followed by six months of house arrest.
Elliott returned to his family home.
He was only allowed to leave for two hours a day. During that time, he would either work at Panera Bread or attend class in Wilmington at Del Tech, a school that is open to students with serious past criminal convictions.
With a tracking bracelet strapped to his ankle, Elliott was determined to repair the damage he did to himself and his family.
It didn’t take long for Elliott to harness what he always had — a bright mind paired with an unstoppable drive — even if he didn’t tend to it as a young man.
“Whereas I used to get positive feelings from getting high, making a quick $1,000 from selling drugs or going to a party, I was getting that feeling from helping other people and doing school work,” he said.
Elliott will graduate this summer with a pair of associate degrees in human services and drug and alcohol counseling from Del Tech. He holds a GPA of around 3.7 (out of 4) and expects it to rise by graduation.
He plans on earning his third associate degree in criminal justice this year at Del Tech’s Stanton campus while serving as Phi Theta Kappa president.
As Elliott’s longtime childhood friend James Karcha puts it, “The level-headedness and decision-making that you see now is vastly improved from where it was. I think he limited himself in the past and now he almost needs a bigger plate for all these responsibilities.”
Elliott’s return to Del Tech coincided with a 2017 change at Phi Theta Kappa, which altered its rules to allow students with criminal records to become members.
It didn’t take him long to become one of the group’s shining examples of how the inclusion of former prisoners could boost the honor society with new members armed with different perspectives and life experiences.
Pattie Van Atter, Del Tech’s Testing Center coordinator and adviser and regional coordinator for Phi Theta Kappa, says Elliott has single-handedly extinguished any qualms about the rule change.
“We’ve never been in a situation like this where someone takes off and does what he did,” she said. “I don’t want to give James a big head, but every day you look for that one reason why you love coming to work and over the past weeks and months, it’s been James.”
Last month, Elliott was named to the All-USA Academic Team, one of only 20 students across the country to earn what is the most prestigious academic honor at associate degree-granting institutions.
That earned him $5,000 and it didn’t stop there.
He was also named a New Century Transfer Pathway Scholar by Phi Theta Kappa and received an additional $2,250 scholarship — the first recipient with a felony record. More than 2,000 students were nominated for the scholarship and Elliott was one of 50 nationwide to win.
Mike McCloskey, a Del Tech academic counselor and adviser and regional coordinator for Phi Theta Kappa, still shakes his head.
“When I think about the fact that we only met him 1 and a half years ago, and all this happened in such a short span of time, it blows me away,” he said. “In my 19 years, he is probably in the top five students that I’ve encountered that changed my life.”
Changes are happening just as rapidly in his personal life.
Elliott’s longtime girlfriend Lauren Hudson gave birth to his first child in January last year, a daughter named Vaeda Jade. They live together in Pike Creek.
Elliott, Hudson and their little one were able to take a break and vacation in Orlando earlier this month, visiting Disney World during Elliott’s trip for the Phi Theta Kappa annual convention.
When he was announced as the new president of the honor society, which dates back to 1918, Elliott collapsed into his mother’s arms and both wept.
The weight of the moment after years of struggle hit hard.
“To pull yourself together after being so far broken is a testament to him, his faith, our support and the school’s support,” Robin Elliott said. “It’s still sinking in. I’m so excited just thinking about what he’ll end up doing because I know it’s going to be something big.”
Once Elliott begins to tell his story, it’s almost impossible to stop him. His Del Tech advisers even jokingly warn people who don’t know what’s coming to settle in.
The drive to make his life count is so palpable that hardly anyone who comes across him walks away thinking he won’t accomplish his goals.
Elliott is determined to use his story to effect change in how felons are treated after serving their sentence.
But he’s also aware that if he makes a misstep, especially if it’s one that lands him back in prison, it would hurt not only himself, his family, friends and supporters, but others getting out of prison looking to reclaim their lives.
“When you’re released as a felon, you already feel like you have to be perfect. And the more I tell my story and it gets known, it almost heightens that feeling,” Elliott said. “I’m breaking down stigmas for other people and if I mess up, the people coming in behind me will be looked at again twice.”
Even though he said he still brims with remorse, he has never reached out to the victims of the home invasion.
“I still see their faces — how scared they were. It haunts me,” he said. “But I don’t want to invade their privacy and their lives. I already did that once. But the way that I live my life now shows that what I did to them means something to me. I can never take back the harm that was done, but I can never harm someone again. Being a parent now, I can’t imagine someone hurting my daughter.”
He’s an intern with the state Department of Labor’s APEX Program, which opens opportunities to people with criminal histories by guiding them through the pardon or expungement process.
Two days a week, he’s at Wilmington Library, leading meetings filled with people with felony convictions looking to wipe their criminal records clean and re-integrate into society.
“It’s really an issue of opportunity,” he said. “My story is a perfect example of what happens when you open those doors.”
Even before his election as Phi Theta Kappa president, Elliott had set his sights on law school with hopes of attending Widener University Delaware Law School. He’s eyeing a future in politics, eager to gain power to push against mass incarceration from within the system.
His recent testimony at Legislative Hall about expungements was one of the greatest moments he’s had since his release, alongside the birth of his daughter and learning he made the Top 20.
Elliott may have missed Scholar Drive the night of the robbery, but he didn’t miss a sign on his return to Delaware from the Florida convention.
His plane was overbooked and Elliott was transferred to an earlier flight. It happened to include Widener University President Julie E. Wollman. Last week, she spoke at the State Correction Institution in Chester, Pennsylvania, about the power of education.
When Wollman’s chief of staff, Katie Herschede, noticed the Phi Theta Kappa medals around Elliott’s neck, Elliott was introduced to Wollman.
He told her about his plans to apply to Widener next year and they took a picture together. Now he has plans to visit the campus, take a tour and grab lunch.
Elliott can only shake his head at that twist of fate.
“I’m literally speechless. What do you say about that?” Elliott said. “It’s all just kind of crazy. I guess some things are just meant to be.”
Follow Ryan Cormier on Twitter @ryancormier
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