On December 18, 2015, William "Billy" Dekle received the news he had been waiting to hear for more than 25 years. After serving time in federal prison since 1990 on a sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy offense, President Barack Obama had granted him a commutation of sentence. The nightmare was soon to be over.
"We are glad that he is one step closer to home so he can spend time with us and enjoy his grandchildren," said Dekle's daughter Amy.
While his wife, daughters and grandchildren were able to pick Dekle up at the United State Penitentiary in Pollock, Louisiana last week, they were required to deposit him at a Florida halfway house hours later. Billy will spend the next several months there, adjusting to life on the outside and securing steady employment, before going home for good.
The former marine is fortunate to have a loving family - wife, children and grandchildren - who have never given up on him, despite the terrible ordeal of his lengthy incarceration. Not all inmates have that kind of support system to return to and Billy told me he is in awe of the incredible job his wife Kay did holding the family together through such hardship.
Dekle's old career was the stuff of spy novels
Billy's '70s and '80s post-Marine Corps career is the stuff of Carl Hiaasen novels and Jimmy Buffett songs. While he never hurt anyone, flying planeloads of marijuana into south Florida earned him one federal and two state felony convictions for marijuana. But the money a young pilot could earn was far more lucrative than any of the jobs Billy could find at the time. Before long he was transporting planeloads of weed again.
Billy Dekle's real trouble began in 1990 when he was arrested for the marijuana conspiracy case that would land him a life sentence. Believing in the Constitution and his right to take his case to trial, Billy refused to "cooperate" with authorities and implicate others.
Of course that did not stop others, trying to avoid long prison sentences, from implicating him. At the end of the trial, like so many others who fought conspiracy charges and lost, Billy Dekle was looking at a sentence of life without possibility of parole for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy offense.
At the time he was granted clemency over two decades later, the pilot, who did nothing more than transport marijuana, was the only defendant from his case still behind bars.
Dekle looks forward to a life beyond prison walls
While nothing can prepare one for the experience of returning to a changed world after more than two lost decades, Billy Dekle is optimistic about the future. He says that after hearing news of his release from a life sentence, everything else is good.
When he phoned me last week, Billy claimed that the new cell phones were the biggest thing to adjust to and that he "just can't get the darn things to work!"
I laughed and assured him he was doing fine as, after all, he had managed to phone me.
The first thing Billy asked was about was his friend and fellow marijuana lifer Andy Cox, still sitting in USP Pollock. When Billy left, the prison had been on an extended lockdown and he had been unable to see his friend before leaving.
The prison is now off lockdown. Andy Cox wrote to me this morning saying, "I miss the grumpy ol' man, but so glad he's not here with me."
Of course he is thrilled to be finally reunited with the family he loves. Nonetheless, he remains painfully aware of the other marijuana lifers left behind, many of whom he has personally served time with over the last two decades and he counts as friends.
"As soon as I get settled I want to start doing anything I can to help the cause and make people aware of this issue," he says. "I won the clemency lottery, but I can never forget the others still in prison."
Cheri Sicard is the author 7 books including "Mary Jane: The Complete Marijuana Handbook for Women" (2015 Seal Press). She works extensively with federal prisoners serving life sentences for marijuana. Her blog is www.CannabisCheri.com