GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Marcellous Bennett had a couple things on his mind when he joined two older brothers in robbing, pistol whipping and carjacking a pizza delivery driver five years ago: money and trying to be an adult, like his siblings.
But Bennett was far from the grown man he wanted to be. Just 13 at the time, he wasn’t thinking of the physical and emotional pain the assault and robbery would cause his victim, Brady Middleton.
What a change five years — and an unlikely mentor — can make in a young man’s life.
These days, when Middleton, now 24, looks at Bennett, now 18, he doesn’t see the boy who’s partially responsible for putting him through three years of physical therapy for injuries that cost him college basketball scholarships. He sees an intuitive, deep-thinking young man who now has a chance at a bright future.
He also sees a friend.
“I see a lot of myself in Marcell,” Middleton told The Grand Rapids Press (http://bit.ly/1sPferT ). “I don’t see Marcell as a sum of mistakes and where he’s from. I see him as a human. That’s bigger and more important than any mistake, any background.”
Bennett grew up in Grand Rapids, where he found brotherhood among gang members. Middleton was raised in a Byron Center home with supportive parents. Despite their differences on paper, the two young men send each other text messages daily. To see them is to witness their genuine connection.
“He understand a lot of stuff, even though he came from a different background. He understands some stuff that most people can’t understand,” Bennett said while taking a break from a recent game of basketball with Middleton. “Even though he came from a side of the tracks where it was livable and they didn’t have crimes or nothing, he can understand.”
Middleton was on the last stop of his pizza delivery shift on a June night in 2009 when he rang the buzzer to an Oak Leaf apartment in Wyoming. Bennett and his brothers had placed the call and were waiting for him. Seconds later, Middleton heard a gun cock to his right.
“Everything slowed down. My heart dropped,” Middleton remembers.
By the time he turned to look, he was being attacked. One of Bennett’s brothers pistol whipped Middleton, the force of the blow sending him to the ground. He could feel the warmth of the blood coming from his head. With a handgun pointed at his face and a sawed-off shotgun aimed at his chest, Middleton’s assailants told him if he moved, they’d kill him. They took his money, phone and car keys.
One of the men with a gun ordered Middleton to his feet and marched him to a wooded area, where he was told to get on his knees. Middleton heard his car being backed up to the woods.
“I thought it was over at that point in time. I asked him, ‘Are you going to kill me?‘ He said, ‘Yes,‘” Middleton said.
Middleton was preparing to plead for his life when the assailant fled for the car.
Bennett and his brothers were eventually arrested. Bennett was sentenced to juvenile detention and probation. His brothers are serving prison time for the crime.
The pistol whipping left Middleton with a deep laceration above his left eye that required nearly 70 stitches. Posttraumatic stress disorder took a toll on his relationships and his grades. He spent three years in physical therapy at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital for post-concussion syndrome.
In a victim impact statement addressed to one of Bennett’s brothers, Middleton wrote, “You not only stole my car and money that night, you stole something more valuable, my genuine trust in people and my surroundings.”
But during court hearings for Bennett, Middleton grew sympathetic. He realized the young teen didn’t have a mentor or strong family support. Middleton didn’t want to see him fall back into criminal activity. He remembers the sobering sight when the young Bennett first stood before a judge.
“It’s really when the seed was laid that ‘My gosh, this is a child.‘ How the heck does somebody get there?” Middleton said.
Putting anger and bitterness aside, he thought there had to be a win in the situation, so he got involved. Since then, Middleton has attended almost every court hearing for Bennett, offering words of encouragement and his high expectations. Bennett took notice.
“I knew that he cared about my future, so it was nothing but respect,” Bennett said of his feelings toward Middleton.
The two met at Bennett’s foster home in Portage after Bennett was released from juvenile detention. It was the first time they shook hands outside of a courtroom. They played video games while making small talk. Middleton asked Bennett why he committed the armed robbery.
Bennett started to say he and his brothers had to. Then he corrected himself to say they thought they had to at the time.
“That changed my life at that point in time more than the assault,” Middleton said. “It was indicative of a bigger problem . This just wasn’t about me.”
Kent County Assistant Prosecutor Vicki Seidl said victims of crimes sometimes show empathy and compassion for offenders, but she’s never seen interactions evolve into the level of a true friendship between Bennett and Middleton.
“It’s very unusual,” Seidl said. “Brady’s certainly given him an opportunity that most other kids don’t get. Brady just always felt like he wanted to see Marcellous succeed.”
Bennett graduated from high school this summer and attends barber school in Portage. He recently landed a job as a cook. If he stays out of trouble, he’ll be off probation in a year.
He wants to live independently soon. Middleton, who is studying political science at Grand Valley State University, has offered for Bennett to move into his apartment. Bennett talks about one day going to college for a business administration degree.
“I feel like I got an opportunity,” he said of his future.
Bennett is the youngest of four children. Growing up, he bonded with people in his neighborhood who understood poverty. That connection will never change, he said.
People sometimes told a young Bennett to stay out of trouble, but they didn’t model good behavior.
“When I was younger, when I was gang banging, the older kids was telling me, ‘We need people in the hood to go to college to be lawyers, to be doctors.‘ But we see them, they’re not doing that. They telling us that but they still selling drugs, they still toting guns,” Bennett said.
Bennett said the gang is what he knew growing up.
“It was just what I seen, I breathed, I looked, I did. It was a family thing,” he said. “Some people can’t help the fact that all they brothers is gang members. So when I was growing up, that’s all I seen.”
Over the last few years, he’s realized he has choices. He wants to pursue a different route.
“I learned we choose our own destiny. We choose to go to college. We choose to stay on the street. We choose to have a job. We choose to sell drugs,” Bennett said. “The world is way too big for criminal activity.”
Bennett says he’s doing the best he can to stay out of trouble and remain focused on his goals.
He has violated probation a few times. At a court hearing addressing one of the violations, Middleton asked Bennett if he was ignorant of his own worth, reminding him he’s better than his mistakes.
The friends recently started attending meetings with CLEAR, a Grand Rapids support group for men seeking re-entry into society after jail or prison.
Bennett says he strives to be conscientious of his every action. He sometimes thinks the odds are against him and that others expect him to falter — to be slapped with a criminal case and land in prison. But Middleton knows his friend has the potential to succeed, and Bennett doesn’t want to let him down.
“With so much trust and how much he believe in me . I don’t want to disappoint him.”