Gene McGuire will never forget his 18th birthday. Instead of celebrating with friends and family in rural Pennsylvania, he was headed to prison to serve life without parole after he was convicted of second-degree murder.
What made it especially hard: He didn’t commit the crime.
Almost 40 years later, McGuire is living a life he calls a “miracle.” He lives in Bedford and serves as chaplain for the 1,400 employees at the Babe’s Chicken Dinner House restaurants throughout North Texas, including the Arlington and Granbury locations.
McGuire said he wanted to sleep peacefully at night so he chose to forgive his court-appointed attorney, who he says didn’t represent him well, and the judge who sentenced him.
“I don’t feel bitter. God forgave me for my errors,” he said. “I thought, ‘Who am I not to forgive others?’ ”
McGuire also wrote a book about his experiences called “Unshackled, from Ruin to Redemption.”
A dark place
McGuire, now 56, grew up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania where he was a promising athlete in track and football in high school.
But a bad decision in June 1977, during his sophomore year, left him headed to prison.
McGuire, 17, at the time, came home from his job at a nearby farm to find his family drinking and playing cards. His favorite cousin was visiting, and unbeknown to the family, was on the run for a murder he committed in New Jersey.
The cousin wanted to shoot pool at a nearby bar and asked McGuire and his stepbrother to come along. McGuire’s mother told him not to go, but he went anyway.
After playing pool for a while, the cousin told McGuire and his stepbrother that he wanted to rob the bar and asked the boys to stay outside as lookouts.
When it was time to leave and the cousin did not come outside, McGuire and his stepbrother went back into the bar. They saw the cousin stabbing the bartender to death.
“I yelled to him to stop. I was scared and intimidated and loyal to my cousin,” he said.
McGuire fled with his cousin to New York City where they ended up in a “sleazy hotel room,” his cousin shooting up heroin while McGuire drank wine.
McGuire knew he had to turn himself in. He was charged with second-degree murder although he did not participate in killing the bartender.
McGuire said he agreed to plead guilty because his lawyer said he would be out in eight to 10 years. He said he was led to believe that he would be convicted of manslaughter, which doesn’t carry a life sentence.
He seemed to have little hope of ever tasting freedom again. But in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Florida case that teens 17 and under with life sentences should get automatic reviews of their cases.
Shortly after arriving in prison, he got his GED and started taking college classes. But he also sought counseling.
“I felt guilty in many ways because I felt responsible because of my own behavior,” he said.
Although he had jobs in the prison and was taking classes, McGuire said he dealt with the pain of losing touch with friends and family by using drugs smuggled in to the prison.
Almost 10 years into his sentence, McGuire attended a prison revival where one of the speakers was the Rev. Larry Titus, who now lives in Colleyville and founded Kingdom Global Ministries. The two became friends, and McGuire began reading the Bible and other books about Christianity. Titus encouraged him to pursue his studies.
“There was something about him. I knew he was a lifer,” Titus said, remembering his first meeting with McGuire. “I took a special interest in Gene. He has always been outstanding. He has a magnetic personality.”
Titus stayed in close contact with McGuire through the tough times when the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons and Parole denied his requests to commute his sentence multiple times.
Titus said he wrote letters on McGuire’s behalf telling officials that he would give him a job and a place to live.
“I remember going back to my cell, closing the door and falling on my face. I cried, I was broken, but then I thanked the Lord for protecting me,” McGuire said.
On April 3, 2012, McGuire walked out of the same courtroom where he was convicted, a free man.
Titus kept his promise and McGuire came to North Texas where he initially helped Titus with his mission outreach work.
Titus said he worked with his friend to help him adjust to life on the outside by teaching him to drive and use a cellphone and an ATM machine.
McGuire said learning about all of the new technology was one of the most difficult things about adjusting to life outside of prison.
McGuire also began speaking to companies about his prison experiences, which is how he met Paul Vinyard, who owns Babe’s Chicken Dinner House restaurants.
Vinyard heard McGuire speak and asked him to come to his restaurants to talk to employees.
“He laid his whole life out in front of them. Many had relatives in prison,” Vinyard said. “You could hear a pin drop.”
Vinyard said employees talk to McGuire about problems with husbands, boyfriends, pregnancies and other issues.
Although McGuire works primarily with employees, he also talks to customers if servers notice they are having a bad day.
“When Gene goes to restaurants, he makes himself available without being intrusive,” Vinyard said.
When asked what advice he would give people who were treated unfairly, McGuire said it is important to thank God for the good times and the bad.
On his first night of freedom, McGuire said he couldn’t sleep, and went outside to look at the stars, something he hadn’t seen in over 30 years.
“There was always light in prison, and officers were walking around all of the time. If you wanted darkness, you put a sock over your face,” he said.
“It was so amazing to see the stars.”