In a restless mood Shon Hopwood returned to Nebraska, discharged after a two-year hitch in the Navy. Stationed in the Persian Gulf, he and a group of other enlistees had guarded U.S. warships with shoulder-mounted Stinger missiles. He was 21, a party animal who’d come close to drinking himself to death. He knew things were bad when the base chaplain started asking him about God while he was down for the count with acute pancreatitis in a Bahraini hospital. Meanwhile the Navy’s on the horn to his dad—struggling to raise five kids on a $35,000 salary as a feed-yard manager—telling him his eldest son is hooked up to a catheter and stomach tube and might not make it.
Hopwood pulled through, and back in his hometown of David City (pop. 2,597), he was looking to figure out a future. Smack in the wide-open middle of nowhere, a solid hour’s drive northwest of Lincoln, where his beloved Cornhuskers rumble, the land rolls across endless fields of corn, grass, and soybeans—family farms for the most part, tended to by devout, hardworking Catholics who on cool autumn Friday nights worship the David City Public High School football team, the Scouts.
He was a year removed from the Navy. It was the winter of 1997 and cold as hell—the season in eastern Nebraska when the air turns brittle, like old bones, and the wind howls like wolves. Hopwood was no longer the conquering hero—a star shooting guard for the Scouts, practicing for hours under the old hoop in his driveway. Directionless, he was still drinking, smoking dope, being stupid—and he hadn’t yet realized that Ann Marie Metzner, the prettiest girl in town, still had a crush on him.
He had few skills to fall back on, unless you counted his uncanny ability to drive past defenders on a basketball court or kill half a bottle of Jose Cuervo one shot at a time, like he did with his Navy buddies. He was a C student, unmotivated. Never did take a book home, but he excelled at standardized tests, so something had to be cooking upstairs. Got himself a basketball scholarship at a small college, Midland University, in nearby Fremont, but fouled out in his first semester for failing to show up to a single class.
“I was so stupid, so stupid and foolish,” Hopwood says now.
“He became worthless when he went to that college,” observes Jack Klosterman, whose father hired Hopwood’s dad, Mark, at Grass Valley Farms. Klosterman always treated Hopwood as if he were his own son. “He was a good kid, a pleasant kid, a real charmer, and polite with the ladies. But he could be a bit of a smart-ass, stubborn, willful,” he says in a telephone call from his David City home. “And he was a tremendous liar. He was so intelligent that he could convince anyone that his bold-face lies were true. I mean, he told me he was going to all his classes.”
Back in David City, Hopwood was living on borrowed time. Ahead of him was a long march of years in the Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Illinois, with razor-wire fences, orange jumpsuits, and bars of three-cent soap that can leave an inmate’s skin scratching for days. It won’t be long now. In a couple of reckless years, during which he’ll pull five armed bank robberies, a scowling federal judge in Lincoln will listen as he begs for leniency. Hopwood will swear that he’ll change his ways. And the judge, Richard G. Kopf, will reply, “We’ll know in about 13 years if you mean what you say.”
“I had no clue,” says Hopwood’s mother, Becky Richards. “Shon was a typical small-town kid, raised in a Christian home. . . . That’s where he learned to memorize Scripture.”
Klosterman remembers things differently: “After that first robbery, they had a police sketch out. Mark had a strained relationship with Shon. He wasn’t ashamed of him, only disappointed that he was just floating. Anyway, Mark walked in with it and he laid it on my desk, and he says, ‘That remind you of anyone?’ And I said, ‘Mark, you and I both know who that is.’ I’d never seen a look of such utter defeat on his face like that before.”
Last month, Hopwood, now 38 and married to the woman he called the prettiest girl in town, steals some time from his internship at the federal public defender’s office in downtown Seattle to meet at a coffeehouse on Fifth Avenue. It’s his next-to-last day; soon he’ll be off to complete his third and final year at the Gates Public Service Law Program at the University of Washington. Created in 2005 and named for Bill Gates Sr., the $33 million program awarded Hopwood a full-ride scholarship two years ago, financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—one of five given each year to incoming law students who are committed to spending at least five years in public-service law after graduating.
Acceptance to the school is extremely competitive. Hopwood’s chances were less than one in a hundred even to get a shot at being one of the 20 finalists interviewed. It didn’t hurt Hopwood, of course, that Seth Waxman, a former United States solicitor general, had written him a letter of reference. Or that two of the petitions Hopwood had already written as a layperson had been reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. That those petitions were written while he was serving time in a federal penitentiary made him even more remarkable.
“The way he told his story was so compelling. He’d read more law cases, in prison, than any incoming law student I’ve ever seen,” recalls Michele Storms, director of the Gates Law Program.
As the monorail swishes by, still full of late-summer tourists, the brown-haired Hopwood, clad in khaki Dockers and a yellow dress shirt, prepares to tell his remarkable story, which recently culminated in his winning a hugely prestigious clerkship for Judge Janice Rogers Brown on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, considered the second most important court in the nation after the Supreme Court.
“It was March 1997 and Tom came by,” Hopwood begins in a flat Midwest twang that sounds a lot like that of fellow Nebraskan Henry Fonda. “He was my best friend growing up. He told me to meet him at the bar. So I met him, and after a few beers he said, ‘What do you think about robbing a bank?’ And I said something like, ‘Sure, sounds like a great idea.’ ”
Hopwood was never in any real trouble in his life—if you don’t count rolling his pop’s pickup while out on a joyride, or getting caught for buying his underage brother beer—but now, inexplicably, he’s planning to knock off a bank. First they went on a road trip, he and Tom, driving north, looking for a small town with little or no police presence. Petersburg (pop. 374), about two hours from David City, fit the bill nicely. They bought two guns at a Walmart, a handgun and a rifle, a nine-millimeter Smith and Wesson. On a Sunday morning in August 1997, Hopwood, with a duffel bag filled with clothes and his dad’s rusted red toolbox stuffed with canvas totes to stash the cash, waited for Tom to pick him up at his parents’ house. En route to Petersburg, they stopped at a college, Wayne State, to pick up some brochures. “We figured we’d have an alibi if we got stopped.”
A few towns away from the Petersburg State Bank, they stole a car from a church parking lot. Neither knew a thing about how to hot-wire a car, so it was a welcome sight to see keys dangling in the ignition of a Chrysler New Yorker.
“I walked into the bank wearing coveralls and a hard hat. We looked like a couple of construction workers,” Hopwood goes on. “There were five or six people in the bank. I’m sweating. Everything in your body is screaming at you not to do it.”
Still, he managed to unzip the coveralls and pull the rifle from the right leg. “And then I’m yelling, ‘This is a robbery! Get down, get down!’ ” His partner fetched the canvas bags from the toolbox, went to the tellers’ till, and emptied them. They then locked the handful of clerks and customers in the vault. No one got hurt, and they promised the captives they’d be out soon.
“We abandoned the car and headed to Tom’s uncle’s farm, and when we got to the farm, I got into the uncle’s grain truck and sat in the bed of that grain truck and I counted the money.”
The moneybags, like Hopwood’s blue-gray eyes, bulged with wads of $100s, $50s, $20s, and loads of quarters, which pleased Tom to no end, as he was living in an apartment with a coin-operated laundry. Hopwood still recalls the rush, the euphoria. They split $50,000 that hot August afternoon 16 years ago—one hell of a payday for a 21-year-old farm boy from Nowheresville, Nebraska.
“I was the life of the party,” Hopwood exclaims. “I was feeling good. I’d never seen so much money before.” But it went fast: expensive clothes, nice dinners, buying rounds for the college girls at Iguana’s Pub in Lincoln. “It was gone in two months, and you know, I didn’t buy one thing of consequence, not even a car.”
On it went, three more robberies, all choreographed by Hopwood: a $10,000 bank heist in Hallam (pop. 276) in December ’97; $20,000 more in February ’98 in Gresham (pop. 270); and two months later, a $25,000 payout in Peru (pop. 569)—each committed with a friend named Craig, a roommate of Hopwood’s in Lincoln. Craig had had a tough childhood. Tossed out of the Catholic high school, he’d done a stint at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. He was sleeping out of his car when Hopwood brought him into the apartment.
(Tom was involved in only the first robbery, and served 4½ years in prison. He wanted to give back the money from the Petersburg robbery, but Hopwood said no. He was arrested 18 months after the crime while taking a college class as a criminal-justice major, and now runs a pool-cleaning business in Arizona. For obvious reasons, Hopwood will not disclose his last name—not to this reporter, nor in the book he co-wrote with Dennis Burke in 2012, Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption.)
“I knew it was incredibly wrong,” says Hopwood. “Afterwards, when the robberies were done, I used a lot of drugs and booze, sometimes even cocaine, just so I could stop thinking about it.”
The party ended on July 2, 1998. Hopwood had rented a room at the DoubleTree in Omaha. He’d been there two weeks, drinking and carousing with Craig, Craig’s younger brother Cody, and Hopwood’s kid brother Brett, all of whom had helped rob a bank in Pilger, Nebraska (pop. 378), a month before. It was one big celebration at the DoubleTree, and why not? “We hit the jackpot with that one,” Hopwood recounts. “We got $125,000 out of it.”
That July afternoon, Hopwood walked into the lobby looking for Brett. Four men were sitting there, all wearing suits and ties. It didn’t look right. “One of them asks, ‘Are you Shon Hopwood?’ I said yeah. Then they jumped up and tackled me to the ground. They were all with the FBI.” Turns out Craig had told a buddy about the robberies, and the friend had snitched. Police also found Hopwood’s palm print on one of the getaway cars.
“I told them everything,” says Hopwood. “In some ways it was a relief to have it over with. I knew I was walking a tightrope. I don’t know, but I don’t think I’d have done another one, because we’d made so much money on the last one.”
Of his quick confession to five armed robberies, Jack Klosterman says, “It was the first time in his life that Shon had come completely clean on anything.”
Compliments of the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, otherwise known as Con Air, a shackled Hopwood touched down on a back strip at O’Hare, far from the terminal, in May 1999, a month after Judge Kopf had meted out a sentence of 147 months. After the sentencing, Hopwood’s mother Becky, in the courtroom that April morning, whispered to him, “You’re a good boy, Shon, and God will protect you. Remember that.”
In a bus packed with other prisoners, Hopwood was driven to Pekin, a medium-high-security prison with 1,400 inmates. It houses its share of murderers, rapists, and child molesters, Hopwood says. It’s an eight-hour drive from David City, but it may as well have been a planet away from the 4,000 head of cattle Mark Hopwood was looking after at Grass Valley Farms. With its low-slung modern buildings, one might mistake Pekin for a business park. Of course, when greeted at the gate by a party of shotgun- and assault weapon–wielding guards, as Hopwood was, impressions quickly change.
“It’s total apprehension in the beginning,” Hopwood reflects. “The noise of those electronic doors locking, I can still hear. It makes me sick to hear that sound.” Seated at a small conference table inside the UW law school, he continues, “It’s figuring out how to do the time without getting into a train wreck. There’re cliques, racial tensions, gangs. It’s about 70 percent black.
“You learn soon that it is your mouth, it’s drugs and alcohol, or sex or gambling—those are the things that can get you in trouble, that you got to stay away from, and then maybe you’ll make it. In the beginning, though, I did do marijuana, because, I mean, the light at the end of the tunnel was so dim. I didn’t have much hope. You’ve seen the movie Groundhog Day? Well, every day is Groundhog Day.”
Hopwood writes in Law Man:
“This was the middle of May 1999. The Kosovo War was underway. George Bush was governor of Texas. The Twin Towers were still standing. The Backstreet Boys released their Millennium album. Star Wars, The Phantom Menace came out, as did Windows 98, second edition. Google was getting its first major financing and Mark Zuckerberg turned sixteen. For me a lot of things would freeze at this time. I would barely touch a computer again for ten years. It is beyond strange to be in such a place and feel your life freezing over, like a sci-fi story where you lie down in your rocket, not to return until everyone you know is old.”
Prison life all blurred together for Hopwood—the cigarette smoke and yellowy lighting, men playing cards and dominoes in the day room, the cursing and fighting, lifting weights at 6:30 a.m., the boredom, the Friday-night nachos, the phone calls monitored, every letter read, the visitations videotaped—and always, the ever-present danger.
He can still recall, too, the outrage that consumed him when he watched in horror as many of his fellow prisoners cheered when the towers fell on 9/11. “They were glad that the federal government was getting attacked, because it was the government that put them in jail.”
Heartbreaking news from the home front also came a-calling. One month after the electronic doors closed behind him, Hopwood learned from his brother Brett, who was then settling into another prison for his role in the Pilger heist, that someone had painted over the “Welcome to David City” sign to read: “Home of the Hopwood Crime Family.”
Much later, the year before his release, he’d get a call from his mother that his father had died. He was not allowed to attend the funeral.
Thank God for the letters. Each one was “like a tiny pardon, a temporary reprieve from my day-to-day surroundings,” Hopwood writes. They poured in from family and concerned residents of close-knit David City. “I wrote him just to tell that the Lord has better days for you,” recalls Jack Kaufmann, a retired David City doctor.
Hopwood had seen Ann Metzner around town as a kid. She was a cheerleader at the Catholic high school, a cross-country runner, and an actress in school plays and musicals who’d go on to get a degree at Creighton University. She was Hopwood’s dream girl, but, he figured, totally unattainable. Metzner had her eye on Hopwood as well—tall and handsome with a wry sense of humor.
“I had a crush on him, but I didn’t tell him. He made me nervous,” remembers Metzner, gently poking her husband during a recent interview at their Burke Gilman Gardens apartment. “I ran into his mother one day,” she goes on. “She told me about the arrests and that he’d been in prison for two years. I got his address and started to write him.”
Hopwood couldn’t believe his luck, so long had he been smitten by her. They wrote hundreds of long, thoughtful letters to each other. He could only keep 20 at a time in his cell. If he didn’t ship them home, the guards would destroy them.
For years, Metzner battled anorexia. She says she was hospitalized three times in high school. At one point, in her 20s, she weighed little more than 60 pounds. In 2001 she was treated at Mirasol, an eating-disorder clinic in Sedona, Arizona. After heading home, her condition vastly improved, she wrote to Hopwood and told him she wanted to come to Pekin for a visit.
“It was the day after Thanksgiving that year. The Cornhuskers were playing Colorado for a shot at the national title when they called me to the visiting room,” remembers Hopwood. “It was the only time in my life that I’d left a Cornhuskers game in the middle. I was nervous, but super-excited. I hadn’t seen her in eight years.
“So I walked right up to her and kissed her on the mouth. I didn’t have anything to lose. I was in prison. We visited for hours that Friday. It wasn’t awkward at all. We’d sit in silence, and that was OK. I did notice that she had an engagement ring, but when she came back on Saturday, the ring was gone. That day I told Annie, I said, ‘When I get out, and if you get healthy, I’ll marry you.’ And I meant it.”
With a smile, Hopwood confides, “I still remember the smirk on the guards’ faces. They were so jealous. One of the guards, I’m sure, probably had to pay for dates, and here was this beautiful woman.”
For Metzner, the thought of waiting another nine years for Hopwood’s freedom was daunting. She talked about moving to Pekin, leaving her job as an animal-food researcher and putting out the 550-page catalog for KV Supply, her father’s pet-supply company in David City. “I started to feel guilty,” says Hopwood. “So I started to push her away. I’d get drunk on prison wine and then I’d call her and tell her about an ex-girlfriend of mine.”
“I was devastated, and started dating others,” says Metzner.
They eventually broke off their romantic relationship, but remained friends. They continued to write and call each other. There was a bond that could not be broken. When Hopwood’s father died, she came to visit. “And I knew then that was it,” says Hopwood, tearing up. “She was going to be my wife.”
Shon Hopwood was glad to get out of the kitchen. It is the most dangerous area in Pekin, he says, because there are places there that the guards can’t monitor. Checking out books to fellow inmates in the law library was a huge relief. From the outset, it nagged at Hopwood that his 12-year, three-month sentence was excessive. “It was a long time, especially for someone never in trouble before.”
Like the other prisoners, Hopwood took a hard, long look at the case of Apprendi v. New Jersey, in which the Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2000, that judges were wrong to hand down harsher sentences based on facts not proven to a jury or confessed in court. The case lit a fire under Hopwood. Maybe he could get his sentenced reduced, he thought, even by just a year or two. He wasn’t the only one harboring such dreams. Almost overnight, 40 to 50 Pekin inmates began to come to the law library, not just the usual handful.
“That case gave all us a new hope,” recalls Hopwood.
Hopwood began to soak up case law like a sponge. He’d spend leisure hours poring over books like Federal Habeas Corpus Practice and Procedure. “I probably read over 4,000 legal opinions while in prison,” he says. Prisoners turned to him for legal advice, to write briefs on their behalf, to figure out legal strategies to have their sentences reduced. He started to think of the guys in orange jumpsuits as clients.
Hopwood eventually concluded that the Apprendi ruling didn’t apply to his case. His campaign for an early release came up short. But what he gained was much more valuable. At last he’d found his calling. He was on his way to becoming one of the best jailhouse lawyers around: “It was the first time in my life that I had any academic success.”
In 2002, fellow Nebraskan John Fellers sought Hopwood’s help. An easygoing man with a ready smile, Fellers, who’d been a used-car dealer in Lincoln, was at Pekin on a drug rap, looking at a dozen years for trafficking in methamphetamines. Police told him he’d been indicted by a grand jury, and Fellers—who by that time was clean and had no drugs in his possession—mentioned his past involvement with drugs. He never realized his statements would be taken as a confession.
“I felt bad for him,” Hopwood wrote in Law Man, “because I knew a rich guy with a high-level lawyer would be out on his boat right now, not in prison.” Early in 2003, after mastering the case, he filed a petition, known as a writ of certiorari, to the Supreme Court, arguing that Fellers had not been read his Miranda rights after being notified of the indictment. That year, the nation’s highest court received more than 7,200 petitions from prisoners—and agreed to review just eight of them. One was Fellers v. United States. For any lawyer, this is the equivalent of pitching a no-hitter.
On the morning of March 12, Hopwood was on his way to the iron pile to work some weights when someone, he remembers, came running across the yard yelling “Shon, you’re going to die!” The inmate had a copy of USA Today, and the story read: “Justices said Monday that they will review an appeal from a man who claims he was tricked into talking to officers. John J. Fellers’ case provides an unlikely test of the landmark 1966 Miranda ruling . . . ”
“I knew this was something that would change my life forever,” says Hopwood. “Something like this is the pinnacle of a lawyer’s career. I couldn’t walk across the yard without someone saying ‘There goes my law man.’ ”
Hopwood called home that night. His dad answered. “Congratulations, Mr. Famous,” he said.
“Shon was amazing,” Fellers says in a phone conversation from the car dealership he returned to in Lincoln after his sentence was cut by almost four years. “He could read very complicated case law and completely understand it.”
Fellers reached out to Seth Waxman, who Hopwood knew had argued more than 50 cases in the Supreme Court. “Yes, he called me and said his petition had been granted and asked if I was interested in representing him,” Waxman recalled late last month from his law office in Washington, D.C. “I said let me read it first. And when I did, I got back in touch with him and told him it was one of the best cert petitions I’d ever read, that it was such a great petition that he didn’t need me. Then I said I’d do it for free—but only if Shon was involved.”
Says Hopwood: “Most lawyers would have said ‘Yeah, nice brief, but we’ll take it from here.’ But Seth made me part of the team. They even had a nickname for me: in-house counsel.”
“It was January 26, 2004, when a guard told me I had a call. I was nervous. You never get a call unless it was a death in the family or something. It was Seth, and he said, ‘The Supreme Court ruled in our favor, 9-0. Thank you.’ ”
Shon Hopwood walked out of Pekin federal prison in October 2008—two years early. That first night he had steak and shrimp with his brother at an Old Chicago in Omaha. He spent the next six months in a halfway house in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The adjustment was hard. He says he was filled with high anxiety for months. He remembers how he “freaked out” one day when he saw how many packs of gum he could choose from at a convenience store.
Two weeks after he left the halfway house, on April 9, 2009, Hopwood proposed to Annie Metzner. Their son Mark was born on Christmas Day that year. Gracie arrived two years later. John Fellers, meanwhile, presented him with a new Mercedes, his way of saying thanks. Hopwood went back to college and received a B.S. from Bellevue University in Nebraska.
In their apartment near Children’s Hospital, Shon and Annie sit together on the couch. Above their heads hangs a framed photograph, taken a couple of years ago, of them standing in front of the Supreme Court building. She has just returned from dropping off the children at preschool, and she looks very happy. He beams when she walks in from the kitchen with a mug of coffee. They chat about the lovely hike they took the day before, up by Granite Falls. The living room is strewn with the plastic pots and pans that go with Gracie’s toy oven.
“We had our problems,” he says. “It’s one thing handling things with men in prison, and another handling things with a sensitive woman.” His eyes welling now with tears, Hopwood continues, “The first thing that goes in prison is empathy, and it’s the hardest thing to get back. They hold you for 10 years and they give you nothing. You come out and you don’t even know how to work a cell phone.”
Hopwood turns quiet and his wife reaches for his arm. “My story no longer seems real, nor was my time in prison. My purpose now in life, I think, is to try and reform the criminal-justice system and change people’s perceptions about prisoners. Most of the inmates I saw were redeemable. They just need a little assistance.”
This August, Judge Kopf, after learning that Hopwood had won the clerkship with Judge Rogers, wrote reflectively on his blog: “When I sent him to prison, I would have bet the farm and all the animals that Hopwood would fail as a productive citizen when he finally got out of prison. My gut told me that Hopwood was a punk—all mouth and very little else.
“My viscera was wrong,” he went on. “Hopwood proves my sentencing instincts suck.”
Says Hopwood: “That was amazing to hear about. You know, I’ve never said I didn’t deserve to be punished. I did. I committed a very serious crime. And now I’m getting an amazing second chance. I feel so blessed.”