It’s funny sharing my story, since I spent the better part of a decade doing everything I could to hide it. I’d lie straight out of the gate each time I met someone new – tell them my name was DJ or Ángel or some other alias, but my name is Waymond Hall. My family calls me Little Way because of my dad. He was Big Way. I think I was 17 years old when I first reconnected with him. I hadn’t seen him since I was a toddler, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But even locked up, he was a formidable man.
At the time, he was at Pleasant Valley state prison in Coalinga, California. Level four, which means no warning shots from the guard towers. One time, I arrived a little late for visiting hours, and the vending machines were sold out of frozen barbecue chicken. Big Way strolled over to an inmate who had a few boxes and returned with two for us. He hadn’t had much success in the outside world, but he had earned respect in prison. There were times when I thought I might end up like him. That night up in the treetop, I was sure of it.
I remember that tree like it was yesterday. I spent eight hours overnight perched 50ft up. My heart was pounding in my ears but not enough to drown out the sounds of dogs and sirens. They were on my tail, and I sat there crouched in the branches, watching the cherry and blueberry light show and praying that spotlight wouldn’t land on me. I was doing everything in my power not to move, but I couldn’t stop a leg from shaking. This is it, I thought. I’ve turned out just like my dad.
One evening in 2005, in Santa Barbara, I committed a home invasion and armed robbery. I was still Waymond Hall then. I had no reason to change my name yet.
My partner and I spotted the two men we believed were drug dealers through a narrow opening in their front door. We stormed in and saw four more people, their faces looking in horror at my rifle and me. After all the drinking we’d done earlier that day, I had lost whatever senses would’ve told me that what we were doing was stupid.
I have been robbed twice at gunpoint. You stay down and do as you’re told. But while we were moving the dealers from room to room at gunpoint, looking for weed and cash, the four others bolted out the back. Like the drunk idiots we were, we panicked and took off.
Soon we were fleeing at 114mph down a one-way street. The getaway car was my mother’s 1990 Corolla. The getaway driver was my old high school friend Ben, the scruffy blond who always wore the same Oakland A’s windbreaker. Ben took a turn going 80mph, skidded wide, and crashed into the curb. I ran – hard. I jumped two fences and waded through chest-deep water down a ravine. I scrambled up a wall to get out and then climbed higher into a tree than I ever had. I hid there, shivering.
The next morning, I climbed down, walked toward the beach, and listened to the waves as my mother’s car lay wrecked in a lot, its registration linked to one Waymond Hall. I reached into my pocket and found the weed I had stolen the night before, still dry in a plastic bag. I sold $50 worth and bought a Greyhound ticket to take me out of Santa Barbara. I would not return for a decade.
Just two years earlier, I was a student at UC Santa Barbara and the only person on my father’s side to go to college. I knew him mostly through the letters he wrote me. He and other prisoners call letters “kites”, and I imagined them flying over the razor wire of Coalinga.
My mom tells me that when I was a baby, Big Way and I were tight. Skin to skin, she’d say. Inseparable. That was right up until the last time I saw him as a free man. I watched him slap her down and kick her, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I was only two. He was 6ft6in, and my mom is 5ft3in, but her will was as big as his body. She packed up me and my baby sister and escaped to a battered-women’s shelter. From there, we bounced around Oakland until she landed on her feet. Welfare helped with rent and food but didn’t do much for the pain of losing my dad.
I didn’t understand why I couldn’t see him. My mom would tell me he was far away. To my toddler brain, this seemed to be a simple matter of transportation. “Couldn’t he come by boat or train or plane?” I would ask. I didn’t realize then that we were actually running from him. In 1990, he committed back-to-back armed robberies, which landed him in prison, and this time he was sentenced to 39 years.
Big Way was no stranger to the pen. He cycled in and out, for robbery, for burglary. That’s where he and my mom first met. Perhaps not the most romantic spot for a first date, but that’s where it began – the visitation room at San Quentin. My mom was 24, idealistic, politically motivated, and naïve. She had recently moved to San Francisco from a conservative Mormon home in Boise. She was looking for change, and she found it. It was the 1970s and things were poppin’. She got involved in a prison letter-writing campaign and typed letters to a political prisoner at Quentin who passed one on to my father. He wrote her back. When my dad was released from Quentin, he paroled to her spot in the city. I came along just about nine months later.
To an outsider looking in, I was born destined for prison – poor, black and with a dad behind bars for most of my life. But my mom was determined that I escape that fate. She’d put herself through Mills College and became a public school teacher. She cared about education and instilled those values in me and my sister. When I was accepted to UC Santa Barbara straight from the Oakland public school system, it was cause for celebration. In my world, making it out was huge.
Me and Santa Barbara, though – not a good fit. Santa Barbara was the opposite of Oakland. Wealthy and white. While I could compete academically, I excelled at the party scene. And while I’d never known the police in Oakland, I racked up a number of misdemeanors at UCSB pretty quick, always involving alcohol and fighting.
One of those charges got my visiting privileges with my father revoked. No more catching up over frozen barbecue. It was tough losing him a second time, but I made it through. When I handed my mother my diploma in black studies, she was validated. Instead of following in my dad’s footsteps, I was following in hers.
Degree in hand, I headed for my old junior high school in East Oakland and was offered a job teaching math. They were even going to pay for my credentialing. Then they ran a background check. My fingerprints showed the record I’d picked up in Santa Barbara, and the administration retracted its offer. I was 24, angry, and broke. So I tried on my father’s shoes instead.
After I climbed down that tree and left Santa Barbara, I vanished into East Oakland. I avoided anything having to do with my old life, even most of my old friends. I’d call my mom from pay phones and arrange a meeting spot every couple weeks. She never knew exactly where I lived, but she helped me, handed me a few hundred dollars here and there, and kept me from sleeping in the park.
We went to see a lawyer together. A good lawyer. She said it would cost $100,000 to represent me, and as she spoke, her eyes were locked solely on my mother. If I looked over, I knew my mother’s expression would read, Way, if I had it, I would do it. I learned three things from that meeting: if and when I was arrested, I would be using a public defender; I had an armed-and-dangerous attachment to my warrant, which meant the police were allowed to shoot me if I attempted to run; and I had officially broken my mother’s heart.
So I stayed hidden in Oakland, where the violent-crime rate back then was more than three times the national average. In those days, few in East Oakland would ask questions, let alone pry. When I asked contractors to pay me in cash, they didn’t ask questions, either. At first, I didn’t bring much to the teams but hard labor. Never before had I been so dependent on a job for survival. I started out doing demolition work. Eventually, I learned plumbing and electrical. I developed real skills and was trusted to use them.
I moved out of motels and into places around MacArthur Boulevard. On 79th Street, I lived next to a single mother with two young boys and became close with Dayln, the younger one. When he saw me go to work in the morning, I imagined being a role model.
One day, I left my door wide open, and Dayln peered in. I quickly pushed him out but not before catching his confused look. He had seen that my apartment was completely barren.
I spent nights on the floor with my feet facing the door. In some cultures, this has a connotation of death because coffins get taken away feet first. I worried more about stray bullets flying from that direction. One of my closest friends was Zach. We had known each other since school, where we played junior varsity basketball together. Although he was a year younger than me, I confided in him, and he had my back. When he was shot and killed on 50th Avenue, I lay curled up for five days.
I learned humility in those years. I felt that I could be killed or lose my freedom at any moment. I had 13 felony counts against me. If I got caught, I’d be looking at a long stretch. Maybe they’d put me with my dad. We could be cellies.
I had a few close calls. I was pulled over in Contra Costa county, and the officer handcuffed me and began searching my pockets. When he found just a single wood chip, he opened the trunk and discovered my shovels and plumbing tools. Then he let me go without looking up my record. He never told me why he had stopped me in the first place.
Shortly after a neighbor of mine was killed in our driveway on 79th Street, I moved to another apartment. It was in the Murder Dubs section of Oakland. A $20 bill was called a dub, so 20th to 29th avenues were known as the Dubs. The “murder” part of the name speaks for itself. Early one morning, I was waiting at the bus stop for my sister. I heard sirens approaching. Several police cars screeched to a halt. Suddenly, guns were drawn. I remembered the lawyer’s advice to never run.
I was placed in handcuffs, as was one other man who had also been at the bus stop. We happened to both be wearing brown pants. The police tried to put me into a squad car, but I kept my feet out so they couldn’t close the door on me. Through the window, I saw someone crying hysterically. It was my sister, who had gotten off the bus.
Then another squad car pulled up, and a person in the back seat pointed at the other man, not me. I was saved by the witness.
Two years passed. Fewer and fewer people in my life had ever known me as Waymond. I developed a stutter and severe insomnia. I had high blood pressure. Drinking became my favorite pastime. After work, I’d buy a bottle and then another.
Against all good sense, I reached out to my junior high sweetheart, Kim, online. We talked until 6am the first night we reconnected. I thought we’d resume our friendship, but anything more was out of the question. I was a fugitive, and she was a single mother with two boys, Daniel and Dante. But soon, we were in love again.
I worked construction jobs and commuted by train two hours every weekend to see Kim and the boys in Sacramento. Her home was a refuge for me. We’d both been through a lot, but we could be our old selves together on those weekends. There was no fronting. After four years together, Kim and I had a daughter, and we named her Ella Samone. At first, I was petrified to sign the birth certificate, but of course I did. Kim and I exchanged our wedding vows under a huge oak tree, but going to the courthouse to sign a marriage certificate was too risky. Still, we’d become a family. I took my stepsons to soccer, and my daughter to see her grandmother. I almost felt normal, but the feeling would pass as soon as someone new would ask me my name. My answer was never the truth.
The whole charade ended when I received two phone calls. The first was from my mom, panicking because she’d been sent a renewal of my warrant. The second call was even more serious. I learned that a large crew of US Marshals had gone to my mom’s house, guns drawn, looking for me.
I had never outrun that evening in Santa Barbara. I had only prolonged the inevitable. Before leaving for work, I would often watch my beautiful wife and newborn daughter sleeping. I’d kiss them goodbye, wondering if it would be the last time. I was always thinking, They will break down the door of your home and drag you away. You will die in prison, just like your father.
Nearly 10 years after my crime, I walked into a courthouse in Santa Barbara and surrendered. When it came time to see the judge, I noticed that my file was taller than the caseload for the rest of the day. Most defendants in the courtroom had only minor infractions. I could feel their eyes turn to me as my charges were read. I put my hands in my suit pockets to keep them from shaking while the judge went on: weapons possession. Armed robbery. Home invasion.
I faced 44 years to life, but when it came time to sentence me, the judge cited my family, my steady work, my character references, and most importantly, 10 years being crime-free. He took mercy. I was given a 22-year suspended prison term and a strict 10-year probation, which meant that a single mistake would send me away without trial. The first requirement of my probation was a two-year residential program at the Delancey Street Foundation. I had to put the bottle down.
Those were the terms. Ten years to the very day I started my life as a fugitive, I signed the paperwork and became Waymond Hall again.
I was rarely sober, not even on the day I showed up to Delancey Street for the first time. My blood pressure was so high that I was almost turned away. Once in, I was on my feet 17 hours a day doing multiple jobs. As hard as it was, it was a safe place to reflect. I never got to say goodbye to my father, and I think about him every day and all the ways I am not like him. He died in prison the year before his only granddaughter was born.
One day at Delancey, I heard a familiar voice call me. It was Ben – my childhood friend and my getaway driver. He had gone through the program after a seven-month jail stint and was there to visit. I learned that he had married his old sweetheart, just one week before Kim and I were married, and they had a daughter together. They had named her Ella.
We parted that day but made plans to keep in touch. I could do that sort of thing. I could think about the future again.
This story was first published by the California Sunday Magazine. Launched at the end of 2014, California Sunday publishes ambitious features and cinematic photography from across California, the west, Asia and Latin America, for a national audience. California Sunday has been a finalist for 13 National Magazine Awards, including magazine of the year, and has won three for photography and design. We also produce Pop-Up Magazine, the acclaimed, touring ‘live magazine’ show