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Once a model ex-offender, Nelson Hopkins Sr. explains what went wrong

Updated: 2013-11-09T17:17:02Z


The Kansas City Star

Two months ago, Nelson Hopkins Sr. began writing apology letters in his northwest Missouri prison cell.

He doesn’t have access to computers. Working with pen and paper, he apologized — to his victims of his June 2011 Blue Springs pizza store robbery, to the detectives who questioned him, even to the mayor of Blue Springs.

“I am apologizing for my criminal actions, for compromising the public safety,” Hopkins said recently inside the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo.

“I am apologizing to my family and my friends for the disappointment I caused them.”

He has, Hopkins insisted, plenty to apologize for.

To many, he once represented the model ex-offender.

Twice previously convicted of robbery charges, Hopkins had won acclaim for reinventing himself as a community justice entrepreneur, helping inmates prepare their own parole plans — as long as they demonstrated to him that they were sincere. The Persian Gulf War veteran also had founded Operation Promise Land, a nonprofit emphasizing citizenship, working out of office space provided by Rockhurst University.

City leaders and candidates sought his counsel on reducing crime.

But all that came crashing down on June 14, 2011.

After advocating alternatives to violence, he committed a clumsy example of the same robberies that twice before had landed him in prison cells.

As described by Timothy Yasso, assistant Jackson County prosecutor during Hopkins’ sentencing hearing the following year, “The exact same type of violence he is trying to stop or was trying to stop is the same violent crime he then committed.”

Hopkins now is offering a general public apology — the apology, he says, that a Jackson County Circuit Court judge didn’t allow him to make during his April 2012 sentencing hearing. Because the judge failed to grant him allocution, he said, he is appealing his conviction following guilty pleas to two counts of second-degree robbery as a prior and persistent offender.

He received 20-year sentences on both counts, running concurrently.

“I broke the trust that so many had placed in me and my efforts in the community,” Hopkins, now 43, has written.

But many of those same trusting friends, he says, didn’t know what he was battling. That included post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms for which he had received treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs after his release from a Missouri prison in 2007.

That also included the Dec. 1, 2009, murder of his son, Nelson Hopkins Jr., 17, who died after being shot while walking home near 54th Street and Lydia Avenue, a college application in his pocket.

It’s all part of why, Hopkins said, he entered the Blue Springs pizza delivery outlet carrying what appeared to be a handgun.

Five employees working the dinner shift on a Tuesday summer evening didn’t have time to wonder why the customer coming through the door wore work gloves and a white surgical mask.

They noticed the gun he pulled out of his waistband.

Three employees escaped out the back door, according to witness accounts. Two remaining workers followed instructions, emptying a cash register drawer into a plastic Domino’s pizza bag, and one of them putting $30 of his own money into it.

The robber pointed the gun and ordered the two down on the floor.

A Blue Springs police officer responding to the robbery call found a work glove, a green sweatshirt and a white mask in or around three dumpsters behind the store.

Two other officers soon apprehended a fleeing man, barefoot, wearing shorts, a mesh shirt and carrying a plastic pizza bag containing $155. An officer returning to the dumpsters found a pair of pants, a pair of work boots and a black Daisy air pistol — a BB gun.

Hopkins remembers the detectives asking him what happened. But some of the details of that day still escape him, Hopkins said.

During the previous weekend he had gotten married, Hopkins said. During the ceremony, he added, “I became overwhelmed with deep grief, sadness and depression. As I was standing there, I remembered that my son and I had promised each other that we would be best man at each of our weddings.

“I looked over and didn’t see him. From that point on, I just disconnected. I began taking my PTSD medications and chasing them with vodka.”

The following February, Hopkins pleaded guilty to the robbery counts. At his April sentencing hearing, prosecutors, public defenders and state mental health professionals added their own context.

In 1992 and 1996, Nelson had been found guilty of robbery in Kansas and Missouri, respectively. For the second conviction, he received a 15-year sentence.

Following his release in 2007, Hopkins had functioned at a “pretty high level,” according to James Bradley Reynolds, a clinician at the Northwest Missouri Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center.

His urine screens came back clean. He continued to operate his own business, Parole & Pardon Negotiation Services.

But Hopkins’ functioning ability declined following his son’s 2009 murder, Reynolds said.

Reynolds had been gauging Hopkins’ emotional state through a numerical Global Assessment of Functioning score. In September 2009, before his son’s murder, Hopkins had received a score of 50, indicating that he was “moderately impaired,” according to Reynolds.

By May 2011 — one month before Hopkins entered the Domino’s pizza store — that number had fallen to 40.

That was in the range, Reynolds said, “of major impairment in functioning.”

Hopkins was struggling with substance abuse, Reynolds said. He was visiting pay-day loan centers to maintain cash flow. And VA officials had denied Hopkis enrollment in a specialized PTSD treatment program in Topeka because his military service had included threats of friendly fire from his comrades against him, and also because his grief following his son’s murder was so profound that he likely would not benefit from the program.

“He started self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana, and that made things worse,” said assistant public defender Jeannette Igbenebor, who represented Hopkins during his sentencing.

The pizza store robbery, she said, represented “a very low-probability success crime,” adding, “I think he had reached the end of his coping ability.”

For all the attention that Hopkins had received for his apparent successful re-entry into mainstream society, he had been keeping other issues to himself, he said.

One reason he started his parole business, he said, was because he couldn’t find other work.

“I couldn’t even get a fast-food job,” he said. “They would just see those two prior convictions.”

There also was an unanticipated issue with preparing parole plans for inmates. “There was no way I could keep myself motivated to keep doing that kind of work because I was dealing with people who had murdered people. This was why my son was dead.”

That contributed to his cash-flow issues.

“I lived off my savings,” he said. “Credit cards, lines of credit.”

In June 2011, Hopkins remarried.

“We were in a hotel room in Blue Springs or Lee’s Summit,” he said. “I started talking to my wife about how I felt about my son not being there.

“I was thinking, ‘Why him and not me? He did the right things, I didn’t. How come I’m not the one laying in the box?’”

He began self-medicating, he said.

“I remember driving up and down the streets. I remember the police officers arresting me. I remembering being inside the lock-up in Blue Springs.”

The air pistol, he said, belonged to a stepson, then headed for his Air Force induction.

Hopkins isn’t sure whether the pizza store robbery victims have received his apologies. State corrections officials check first with victims to learn whether they want to receive them.

Jeremy Dickstein, lead Blue Springs Police detective on the case, received his.

“He certainly does not need to apologize to me,” Dickstein said. “He committed an offense in our jurisdiction, we took the appropriate response and he was charged with that crime.

“I wish him well in the future.”

Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross also received an apology letter. “I am impressed that you are accepting responsibility for your deeds,” Ross wrote back, “and (are) embarrassed and ashamed that it happened.”

Hopkins still has advocates. Bill Kostar, the former Westwood mayor who befriended Hopkins after his son’s murder, believes Hopkins’ apologies to be sincere and has assisted in distributing them.

“I would not be involved with a person whom I felt was a bad guy,” said Kostar, a business and management consultant who serves as board chairman of the Nelson Hopkins Jr. Scholarship Fund. The fund raises money for students at Alta Vista High School, which the younger Hopkins attended.

Kostar has corresponded with Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté about the still-unsolved murder of Hopkins’ son. Recently, a sergeant with the department’s cold case squad notified Kostar that it would be looking again at the killing.

Meanwhile, Damien de Loyola, an assistant Missouri public defender, has submitted an appeal of Hopkins’ 2012 conviction. De Loyola, while not wishing to comment on the appeal, anticipates a response from the Missouri state attorney general’s office perhaps by December.

An appellate court could issue an opinion next spring.

The plea court erred, according to the appeal, when it failed to grant Hopkins allocution before pronouncing sentence.

“I wasn’t going to make any excuses,” Hopkins said. “There aren’t any.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to

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