Lars Peterson left his future in a cemetery near the James River.
Or at least it seemed that way. One hour on Feb. 27, 2000, branded him a convicted felon. And in that downtown Richmond cemetery, Peterson realized he was lost.
He spent nearly eight years in state prison, where he dedicated himself to education. After accumulating 11 certifications and an associate’s degree while incarcerated, Peterson pursued a four-year college education after his release.
Next month, at the age of 30, he will graduate from Virginia Tech with a civil engineering degree.
He really was lost in the cemetery. He didn’t know where he had been until he read about his crime in news reports.
Peterson had arrived in the cemetery aimlessly. He graduated from Fairfax County’s James Madison High School in 1998 — the year his current Tech classmates were making the leap to third grade. He decided to attend Virginia Commonwealth University in downtown Richmond. But he admits learning wasn’t a priority.
“I had a hefty weed smoking habit and was an experimenter,” Peterson said. “So, I got pretty much involved with the people who were up nights partying, doing various types of substances, and I tried a few here and there. I didn’t really focus too much on school.”
By winter break of his sophomore year, Peterson had begun to grow his own marijuana. He says a friend who doubled as his drug dealer stole drugs from his house over the break, and then socialized with him several times before Peterson and his friends figured out he had taken the drugs. Peterson was enraged.
“Me and a couple of my buddies came up with this plan to rob him,” he said. “And we went through with it a week before the spring break that year and robbed him for about ten grand. There were a bunch of people involved.”
On that night in late February, Peterson and his friends donned masks and broke into an apartment in the student-populated Fan District of Richmond. Peterson carried a machete he had acquired in Guatemala. His friends carried a sawed-off shotgun and a lug wrench.
They abducted the man Peterson said took his drugs. They drove one friend’s blue Chevy Blazer to the large cemetery along the James River. At this point, none of them knew where they were. Panicked, one friend said, “Calm down, Lars.”
The misstep would eventually help identify Peterson as the culprit and send him to prison.
They left the man in the cemetery. Peterson said his outlook began to change immediately after that night.
“I had come to the understanding that my lifestyle and the things I was doing, and the way I was going through with things wasn’t working — and wasn’t going to work. I needed a real solution, a real plan for the future.”
“Good morning, my name is Lars Peterson, and I used to be a dumbass.”
He doesn’t wax poetic about his turnaround. He pursued a plan for the future. His initial pursuit of a four-year college degree will come to an end when he grasps a civil engineering diploma next month.
He looks unassuming standing before Tech instructor Laura Agnich’s criminology class, but his introduction lightens the mood. This is not part of his rapid ascent from prison roll call to graduation name reading. This is to help the more common felon, the repeat offender slouched in a cell waiting for chow time.
He is not the average guest speaker. He is an ex-felon, a convicted criminal, in a room full of students considering careers in law enforcement.
Peterson actually asked to speak to the class. He began by e-mailing Agnich and sitting in on the class. Then, he approached her about giving a guest lecture.
Even though they had spoken numerous times, Agnich only knew that Peterson had “years of experience with the criminal justice system.” Like most people he meets, she didn’t ask. But after talking to him and hearing his story, she agreed to let him speak.