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.
“It humanizes criminals,” Agnich said. “In my class, we are talking about criminals as this abstract thing, but you don’t actually think about them as human beings, and that’s important if you’re going into law enforcement.”
Speaking to more than 50 students, he was under the microscope.
But he is OK with that. Agnich said Peterson is the exception to the rule. He is in the minority of prisoners who have moved forward.
According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 69.8 percent of prisoners released since 1994 were arrested for a new crime with three years. Peterson has been out for more than four years, long enough to complete his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering with a 3.4 GPA.
The questions came quickly from the criminology students. Nearly all of them sought prison stories. And he had them. But he also had a different experience than many inmates.
His journey toward this May’s graduation began in August 2000, when he pleaded guilty to eight felony charges and began his sentence in Richmond City Jail.
Lars Peterson said one hour of stupidity changed his life forever. His mother, Carla Peterson, said his first steps out of the courtroom were in the right direction.
“Lars is basically a nice young man,” she said. “Once he walked through the doors of the Richmond jail, he started being what he actually is.”
Peterson used to get high and drive from college in Richmond to his home in Fairfax County. Entering the county, he stared at the walls of Lorton Reformatory — then a prison for serious offenders — and in the drug-induced haze, he wondered what it was like on the inside.
Police arrested Peterson less than a month after he and his friends carried out their plot. He was identified as the main conspirator. He was charged with 21 felonies, including robbery, weapons violations, abduction, and breaking and entering.
He was offered a plea bargain. He pled guilty to eight charges.
Only his two weapons charges carried mandatory sentences — three years for a first offense and five for a second. Even committed simultaneously, the violations count as two offenses by law. He was sentenced to 69 years, with 61 suspended. Peterson served more time than either of his co-conspirators.
After his initial stay in Richmond City Jail, Peterson spent time in Deep Meadow Correctional Center, Greenville Correctional Center, Coffeewood Correctional Center and the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.
While he never focused on his course work at VCU, Peterson dedicated his time in prison to his education.
“You don’t have many choices — either sit around and do nothing, or do this. And I was fine with doing that stuff,” he said. “I was looking at the future and I was like, I need to build a resume or basically really show and prove to everyone that I’m doing good.”
His mother said prison gave him a reason to do things he may not have done otherwise.
“He spent a lot of time in prison improving himself, reading books and taking courses, things he might not have done had he not been there,” Carla Peterson said. “So, you try to make the best of it. And I think he did.”
At the time Peterson was imprisoned, 26.7 percent of the country’s state prisons offered college courses to inmates, and 55.7 percent offered vocational training, according to the BJS.
Peterson took full advantage of both options. He passed up more lucrative prison jobs — such as reconstructing engines for $1.25 an hour or making cabinets for 85 cents an hour — to work as a tutor, take vocational classes and then get an associate’s degree.
Agnich said his middle class background, which provided him more financial support than most of his fellow inmates, allowed him to make use of the education programs.
“That was his choice, but the thing about taking those programs, is whether it’s going to pay off for you in the end,” Agnich said. “If you’re going to be spending years in prison and you’re from an impoverished neighborhood, it’s not going to benefit you to take those classes. What’s going to benefit you is the 85 cents an hour so you can by commissary and stamps.”
His highest salary while imprisoned was 45 cents an hour for serving as a dog trainer. He spent most of his time in classes or tutoring other inmates. Relatively few inmates use the educational opportunities. According to the same report, 31 percent of state prison inmates took vocational classes, but less than 10 percent took college courses.
Among the vocational classes Peterson took were small engine repair, fluid power and industrial maintenance. It was this last class that steered him toward civil engineering.
Nearing his release date, which came slightly early because of good behavior, Peterson applied to several colleges. He sent the applications shortly after the April 16, 2007, campus shootings at Tech.
“I kind of didn’t expect much from Tech, but they were the only ones that gave me a legitimate reason why they were turning me down,” he said.
Tech told Peterson to take two classes at a community college and reapply. He took the classes at home in Northern Virginia and was accepted to Tech’s College of Engineering the next semester. He disclosed his record during the application process, and he was accepted.
The university began questioning him about his record shortly before classes started. After he had moved to Blacksburg, detectives from the Virginia Tech Police Department came to see him. He was sent to sessions at Cook Counseling Center.
When his evaluations were completed, detectives said they would notify him if he could attend classes.
He waited for an answer until the weekend before classes started.
“A couple cops walked into McComas when I was playing basketball that Sunday before and said, ‘We’re looking for Lars Peterson,’ and they made me sign a separate agreement,” he said. “It was kind of like a separate probation where I would report whenever the Virginia Tech police officer wanted me, and I would voluntarily go to counseling and take care of all that stuff.”
He said he thought it was an appropriate process. Beginning in fall 2008, the university initiated a more defined process for handling admissions of applicants with past disciplinary issues.
All applicants are asked, “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a violation of any local, state, or federal law, other than a minor traffic violation?” Those who respond yes to the question have their applications automatically sent to Mildred Johnson, director of undergraduate admissions, for review. She contacts Tech’s Threat Assessment Team.
Since 2008, the Threat Assessment Team has conducted the review. Prior to creation of the current policy in fall 2008, other university offices conducted a similar review.
“I can say that we are not admitting students that we deem a threat to the university,” Johnson said.
Gene Deisinger, deputy chief of Tech Police, chairs the team. At the conclusion of a review, he sends a memo to the admissions office with one of three recommendations. The team could conclude that the applicant does not pose a threat to the community, that more information is needed to make a determination, or that the applicant does pose a threat.
Johnson said the university typically receives 25 to 30 applications per year that are referred to the Threat Assessment Team. She said about 75 percent are cleared by the review.
With the team’s recommendation in mind, Johnson’s office makes the final decision after a holistic review of the applicant. She said students with past disciplinary problems often make the most of their opportunities and are not disadvantaged in the admissions process.
“Just because you have that conviction doesn’t mean you can’t come to the university,” Johnson said.
She could not speak to Peterson’s specific case, but said the few similar cases she has seen have usually turned out well.
“I’m sure this individual is a good example of how you pay your debt to society, and then you can still come out and be a productive citizen and do very well at a university,” Johnson said.
Peterson said he was just ready to redeem himself in the college environment.
“I spend more time focused on my classes and doing stuff like that now and getting good grades than I did before,” he said. “If I miss a party or I hear a person telling me some great story about some event they went to, I don’t care that much the way I used to. There will be other times.”
His classes have given him a more specific career focus. While he began his time at Tech taking all the classes he could find on environmental water resources, he also became interested in sustainable land development.
While he participates in few extracurricular activities, he went to China with fellow engineers and is a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society.
Another factor has also played into his schedule in the last 11 months. He has a daughter, almost a year old, who he visits frequently in Roanoke.
Lars Peterson now hopes to find his future on the shores of a crystal clear sea.
“I usually think big,” he said. “Originally I wanted to develop a resort in Belize, and that was part of my civil engineer idea. Now it has moved places a little bit.”
Peterson said his girlfriend’s Liberian heritage has opened him up to the possibility of building his dream resort on different shores.
“I’ve done a lot of land development and sustainable land development and I’m thinking of making some big, sustainable resort there,” he said. “Liberia is a great beach. They don’t have many earthquakes, they don’t have hurricanes or any of that other stuff.”
But he also recognizes he is a rare case. He is a convicted felon about to receive a bachelor’s degree. He has a summer engineering job lined up in Washington, D.C., and hopes to find permanent employment in the fall.
And his criminal record doesn’t even come up in some job interviews. If potential employers do ask, he tries to point out how he used his time in prison.
Agnich said most felons have extreme difficulty finding work, simply because of the label.
“Once you get out, not only do you have limited job prospects, you’re also stigmatized. That affects your life outcomes on every level,” she said.
Peterson said his record doesn’t affect his everyday decisions like it used to, but it will always be a part of his story.
“You can’t look at someone’s record and say this is a good person or a bad person,” he said. “My record is completely clean except for one hour, but I will forever be known as Lars Peterson the ex-felon.”
The stigma, however, is not the only thing that limits felons’ success after their release, according to Carla Peterson. After getting a taste of the criminal justice system when her son was imprisoned, Carla Peterson became involved with Virginia CURE, a state chapter of a national advocacy group that focuses on aiding the rehabilitation of criminals.
She is now the state group’s executive director. She says several factors, including financial support and prior education, helped Lars become an outlier among released prisoners.
“I think he was atypical,” she said. “People like that are atypical — they’re coming from educated backgrounds, good schools and all of that. He came in with a lot of strengths that other people don’t have.”
He also had a place to land on his feet upon release.
“Lars was lucky because he had a home to go to when he got out, and that’s very important,” Carla Peterson said.
The family visited him every other weekend while he was imprisoned, and in turn, Peterson eased his parents’ financial burden by applying and winning grants to complete his education. His grades and an attention to detail in his application essays allowed him to win much financial assistance in his pursuit of a Tech engineering degree.
“It’s really rare, extremely rare,” Agnich said of her guest speaker. “A lot of doors close for you once you’re labeled a felon, especially with a violent crime. So privilege and background aside, you have to be a very smart person to go to Virginia Tech engineering.”
Peterson also said his family played a large part in his turnaround.
“I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities that most other people have when they get out of prison where they have to pay the rent and have all these financial demands,” he said. “My family was there to support me.”
His family’s support has now been thrown behind efforts to improve the corrections system.
“I just had a lot of trouble wrapping my mind around the concept that one hour of being an idiot cost me seven or eight years of my life,” Peterson said. “The whole correctional system thing, I believe, is a complete joke. It should go back to being called a punitive system, because that’s what they’re trying to do.”
He said many inmates don’t work to better themselves in prison because Virginia has no incentive for good behavior. The state does not have parole. The most an inmate can cut off his sentence is 10 percent of the time.
“They need to have something to work toward,” Peterson said. “There was one guy who was smarter than me, he was my (cellmate) for a while. All he did, he would play soccer sometimes and then buy CDs and lay in bed and listen to music.”
Carla Peterson’s organization is leading efforts to aid prisoners’ reentries into society, a cause she said Gov. Bob McDonnell has shown an interest in. She tries to help individual prisoners by answering their letters and giving them support the they are often missing. She hopes more housing options for recently released prisons can be developed by the state corrections system.
Still, Lars Peterson said success requires individual effort.
“For the most part, it’s up to the individual to do everything themselves. You can take advantage of the opportunities — however few there are — or you can do nothing and just as easily do your time,” he said.
As he distances himself from that life, he still attempts to share his experiences in hopes of improving the chances of recovery for future felons.
About 29 percent of Virginia state inmates return to prison after their first release.
Peterson returned to Coffeewood Correctional Center last summer — where he spent about three years of his sentence.
But he wasn’t at the mercy of the guards. The prison officials asked him to speak about his reentry and education. He happily obliged, but didn’t spend too much time reflecting on the topic. He is thinking about a busy week in May, when he will graduate, celebrate his daughter’s first birthday and move to Northern Virginia to begin work.
“I’m moving on,” he said. “I’m on my way to bigger and better things. I will just share my story and if it helps someone else, that’s great.”