Alison Holcomb had just come out of El Centro de la Raza

Alison and Gregg Holcomb. Photo by Daniel Berman.

Alison Holcomb had just come out of El Centro de la Raza when she looked down at her cell phone. She had a text and a voice mail, both from a staffer at the ACLU of Washington, where she was working as criminal-justice director. The messages were unexpected. Holcomb was taking a vacation day and wasn’t expecting any work calls. Instead, she was setting the stage for her next big move: a planned City Council run against Kshama Sawant.

The contest was shaping up as the council fight to watch in 2015. Sawant, the socialist firebrand who pushed the city to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, would be hard to beat. But if anybody had a chance, it seemed likely to be Holcomb, a poised, Stanford-educated lawyer who had written marijuana legalization Initiative 502 and then, on “loan” from the ACLU, served as the measure’s campaign director. She achieved a resounding win, striking a blow against the war on drugs by making Washington one of only two states at the time to allow the sale of recreational marijuana.

“I was feeling really, really super-excited about running,” Holcomb recalls of that October day when she toured El Centro to solicit input and support for her council campaign. Then she checked her messages. “Anthony’s in town,” the text from the ACLU staffer read, referring to the group’s national executive director, Anthony Romero. Could she have a quick meeting with him later that day?

“He’s going to offer you a job,” her husband Gregg guessed after picking her up from El Centro. It seemed improbable to Holcomb. Even more improbable was that Gregg, often a quietly supportive presence at Holcomb’s public appearances, would figure significantly in the events to come. But neither of them knew that yet.

Holcomb says she thought Romero just wanted to talk about the good work being done by the local ACLU office.

When she sat down with Romero and local ACLU leaders several hours later, at 5 o’clock, the national director started by telling Holcomb about the $50 million grant the ACLU had received to combat mass incarceration from the Open Society Foundations, the reform-minded network founded by billionaire George Soros. The ACLU had already launched a national project on the issue in 2010 with a wildly ambitious goal: to reduce the country’s incarceration rate—the highest in the world—by half over the next 10 years.

The ACLU had judged that the time was ripe. After decades of tough-on-crime policies, voices on both the left and the right were acknowledging that this country puts too many people behind bars, raising questions about our nation’s humanity while breaking state budgets from California to Texas to New York.

Soros’ foundation dedicated that huge chunk of money to the ACLU’s political arm rather than its nonprofit side—thus the organization can use the money to lobby for legislative reform, get involved in political campaigns, and run its own state-level ballot initiatives across the country, all of which the organization hopes will raise the issue’s profile exponentially as a presidential election year approaches.

After recounting all that, Romero, who later told me he had watched Holcomb’s work on I-502 with admiration and considered her one of the ACLU’s “up-and-coming stars who will take us to the next level,” said to her: “I want you to lead the campaign.”

“At which point, I couldn’t breathe,” Holcomb recalls. When she could, she asked Romero: “If I call you back in an hour and say yes, what’s next?”

She did say yes, deciding that the opportunity was too good to pass up, and even more exciting than a shot at a City Council seat. And she quickly found out what was next: diving right into California’s Proposition 47 campaign, which proposed turning drug possession and low-level property crimes from felonies into misdemeanors. Hailed nationally as a model of sentence reform, and bolstered by $3.5 million of the Open Society grant as well as Holcomb’s advice, Prop. 47 passed in November with almost 60 percent of the vote.

Talking by phone a few days later, Holcomb says she is contemplating running more ballot initiatives like Prop. 47, likely targeting early-primary and battleground states as a way of introducing the issue into the 2016 presidential debate. Yet she goes on to say that as radical as that measure might seem, it addresses relatively “easy” issues. A lot of people have come to condemn the war on drugs, which resulted in aggressive enforcement that has put an unprecedented number of people behind bars since the ’80s, many of them guilty of possession charges that hurt only themselves.

The hard question, but one Holcomb says she feels is “absolutely necessary” to ask, is this: “What do we do about violent crime?” Bringing that into the conversation risks pushing a lot of buttons: fear, anger, grief, the desire for vengeance.

Photo by Daniel Berman

Holcomb knows this better than most. What she rarely talks about publicly—what even Romero didn’t know when he asked her to take on criminal-justice reform—is that Holcomb’s father-in-law was murdered. “I can’t talk about it without starting to cry,” she says, her normally composed voice becoming shaky. “Gregg has struggled with the trauma for a long time.”

That doesn’t temper her belief that too many people are in prison. In an unexpected way, it strengthens it.

Holcomb is beginning to focus on a rather revolutionary approach to criminal-justice reform—one that views the tremendous resources put into prosecutions and prisons as misguided, and that aims to siphon some of those resources instead to victims. “I’m just spit-balling,” she says, “but it seems to me that we could be a lot more creative and have a much more victims-centered approach to violent crime than we do right now.”

What would that look like? One would first have to understand what victims experience. As it happens, Holcomb shares a life with someone who is living that experience.

Gregg doesn’t talk about his father’s murder much with Alison; it’s too painful. But I ask them if they would be willing to sit down together to talk about how the murder impacted Gregg and what lessons that might have for criminal-justice policy. So it is that a little more than a month into her new job, Holcomb hears her husband, for the first time, recount in full the violence that changed his world 22 years ago and the reverberations that continue to this day.

It’s the week before Christmas, and the Holcombs have squeezed a stately tree into the small living room of their one-bedroom Capitol Hill condo. A larger room lies adjacent, but it’s filled with toys, having been turned into a makeshift bedroom for their 6-year-old son, Dashiell. Given the steep cost of trading up in the current real-estate market, they’re determined to make do with the small quarters as long as possible.

As Gregg makes coffee in a French press, Holcomb emerges from getting dressed, her short, dark hair still damp. At 9:30 in the morning, she just now got around to showering, she explains with a little embarrassment. She’s usually put together as if ready to step into a corporate board meeting; it’s one way she countered the stoner stereotype while stumping for pot legalization. But now, having to rise before dawn to make calls to the East Coast, she’s having trouble figuring out when to duck into the bathroom.

“What would you like to know?” Gregg asks, settling on a couch. He’s 45, owner of the Capitol Hill bar Witness, and a gentle bear of a guy who calls empathy his greatest strength and weakness. On a wall nearby is a picture of his dad, blond and mustachioed, wearing a jacket and tie. “Do you know how long that’s been up?” he asks. “Three days.” Feeling for many years that he couldn’t look at it without being overwhelmed by grief, he finally decided he wanted Dashiell to have at least an image of his paternal grandfather around.

I ask Gregg to tell me about his dad. He says that for much of his childhood, spent in San Diego, he didn’t know Hank Holcomb all that well. Gregg’s parents divorced when he was young and he lived with his mom. When he was 18, though, he moved in with Hank. Gregg was about to join the Navy, following his dad’s footsteps. By then, his father had retired from the Navy and started counseling substance-abusing teens for Job Corps.

Once a tough disciplinarian with Gregg’s half-sister and brother, Lydia and Frank, Hank had mellowed, somewhat. Gregg once saw his dad throw out his siblings’ dinner because they were 20 minutes late. For the child he was newly getting to know, things were different. Gregg says Hank cut him a lot of slack, listened to him, and offered encouragement.

On Sunday, August 15, 1993, shortly after Gregg’s 24th birthday, the young Navy sailor was scrubbing the engine compartment of the USS Nimitz, which was docked in Bremerton, when he got a call. It was his commander, telling him to go home. Nothing more. Just go home. His then-wife, before Alison, met him crying. His father had been shot, dead.

Hank had been withdrawing money from an ATM in Imperial Beach, just south of San Diego, so that he could buy a bouncy house for a grandchild’s 1st birthday. A young man confronted him. “Come on, man, give me the money,” the man said, according to later court documents. Instead, Hank kept walking, got in his car, and locked the door. Through an open window, the man shot Hank in the left arm— the bullet traveled into Hank’s chest and through several vital organs.

The killer, who neglected to take Hank’s wallet, which lay on the seat beside the now-dying man, left by bike—a hint at his young age. Five months later, a 17-year-old named Oscar Rubi was identified as the culprit. Tried as an adult, he received a sentence of life without parole.

I ask Gregg about his feelings toward Rubi. Gregg sets down his coffee cup and stares at the wall. Alison sits quietly across from him, as she has the whole time. We wait.

“For years,” he continues unsteadily, “I would go to sleep and think about what my dad’s last thoughts were.” And his last words. “My dad could be an ornery son of a bitch, right? So it’s possible that his last words might have been, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ ” He laughs. He says he also wanted to know whether his dad panicked. Was he scared?

Photo by Daniel Berman

“So nobody knows what happened except my dad and Rubi.” It was impossible for Gregg to ask Hank. And he couldn’t ask Rubi either—at least not at the trial, with its clear set of rules about who can address the defendant.

So years later, Gregg tentatively explored getting in touch with Rubi. He and Alison had some friends who mentioned something called the “restorative justice” model, which entails bringing victims together with offenders as a way of getting answers to the kind of questions that were haunting Gregg, and of providing an opportunity for a more personal form of accountability. Gregg called Pelican Bay State Prison, where Rubi was then held, and reached a guard on the inmate’s block. “This is a bad dude,” the guard warned, mentioning something about Rubi violating prison rules. “He’s not going to tell you what you want to hear.”

“I was on the fence anyway,” Gregg recalls. “And so I gave up.” So where did that leave him?

“With a lot of ‘Why?’ ” he says. “And some hatred.”

“Only some?” I ask.

He nods. “And here’s something interesting—how much guilt I feel.” Guilt, he goes on to explain, that he didn’t want to personally rip open Rubi’s throat with his bare hands. Gregg says he just wasn’t wired that way, and it couldn’t bring his dad back anyway. “And every time I bring it up, I feel like less of a man.”

In 2013, a group called Californians for Safety and Justice set out to survey victims about their attitudes toward criminals. For years, an influential narrative had been taking the place of hard data: Victims want to see offenders put away for as long as possible, or even killed, if the death penalty is on the table.

The California group had a hunch that such a view, while prevalent among some victims, did not represent them all. Lenore Anderson, the group’s founder and executive director, says she’s sat with grieving mothers in communities that have both rampant street violence and extremely high incarceration rates. “We really wanted to make sure we heard from victims from all walks of life,” says Anderson, a former chief of policy for the San Francisco District Attorney’s office.

A research firm hired by the group found 500 people who had been victimized in the past five years, of all races and genders. To Anderson’s surprise, it turned out that the differing demographics had a minor impact on attitudes. Across the board, by margins of at least two to one, victims said the state should focus more on probation and rehabilitation programs than on incarceration. When the research firm touched on the matter of resources, asking victims whether the state should invest more in mental-health and substance-abuse treatment or in jails and prisons, the numbers jumped even higher. Seventy-four percent of all victims, and 94 percent of African American ones, opted for treatment over incarceration.

Armed with its data, the California group created a political arm that brought Prop. 47 to voters. One of its animating ideas was to take the money saved in criminal-justice costs and redistribute it into treatment programs, anti-truancy efforts, and victim services. An ardent campaigner for the proposition was a police widow named Dionne Wilson.

Explaining her support, Wilson tells me that she had “jumped up and down” when her husband’s killer got the death penalty. But the hate that continued to consume her left her immobilized. Eventually she let it go, writing him a letter offering her forgiveness, then meeting with other prisoners through a restorative-justice group—many of them, she discovered, survivors of brutal childhoods. “It brought me a tremendous amount of healing,” she says.

Prop. 47’s success—and the victim data it was based on—energized an anti-incarceration movement that was already seeing new life. The numbers themselves told a powerful story. In 1980, roughly 500,000 Americans were behind bars. Currently, there are 2.3 million, more than 60 percent of them minorities.

A more-than-400 percent increase in 25 years might be understandable if there had been a horrible crime wave during that time period. In fact, crime has been dropping since the ’90s.

Might crime be going down because we’ve been locking up so many people? Only to a limited extent, according to a 2012 report by The Pew Center on the States, a nonpartisan research organization. “Experts differ on precise figures, but they generally conclude that the increased use of incarceration accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the crime drop in the 1990s,” says the report, “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms.” “Prison expansion has delivered some public safety payoff,” the report allows.

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a national organization working for criminal-justice reform since 1986, explains that Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs began the unprecedented march of people to prison. Then, along came mandatory minimum sentences, which were usually quite long and not open to judicial discretion. Witness the 25-year-sentence reluctantly handed down by a Florida judge in 1998 to Scott Earle, a first-time offender and painkiller addict whose crime involved providing pills to an undercover police officer.

In the ’90s, the national mood darkened even more when it came to criminals. Washington voters passed the first “three strikes” law in 1993, sending repeat criminals—sometimes fairly petty ones, convicted on charges such as assault—to prison for life without the possibility of parole. Dozens of other states followed suit. Many, including Washington, also ended parole altogether. A saying at the time: “Life means life.”

But now, Mauer observes, “the climate for criminal-justice reform is shifting quite rapidly.” In part, he credits the recent economic crisis, which prompted policy-makers of all political stripes to ask of incarceration: “What are we getting for our money and what else could we be doing?”

Witness the birth of a conservative group called Right on Crime in a part of the country often associated with draconian penal policies: Texas. Spokesperson David Reaboi explains that the group has its roots in the budget negotiations that led to the 2007 legislative session. The way incarceration rates were going, Texas was going to have to spend $2.6 billion to expand its prison system.

Instead, a bipartisan group of legislators rallied behind a bill that would attempt to lower the incarceration rate by putting money into programs designed to lessen recidivism. “A lot of folks, especially the politicians, in Texas took a tremendous chance by going against the grain,” Reaboi recalls. “In a few years, the results came back. The crime rate in Texas dropped to its lowest point since the ’60s.”

In 2010, Reaboi continues, Right on Crime formed this idea: “Let’s go and do it for other states in Red America.” In places such as Alabama and Utah, it carries weight to say, “Hey, look, this is what Texas did.”

Talking with Reaboi and Right on Crime policy director Marc Levin, it’s apparent that their critiques of incarceration policies go beyond economics. Reaboi mentions the “crazy and outrageous” mandatory minimum sentences sometimes given drug offenders. Levin says his organization always talks about “locking up people we’re afraid of and not those we’re mad at,” meaning that prisons and jails should be reserved for dangerous, violent offenders. In June, he and other members of his organization participated in a Texas delegation that traveled to Seattle to observe our Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, known as LEAD, which offers treatment and other support services to nonviolent drug and prostitution suspects instead of booking them. “It was really impressive,” Levin says.

What about those people we’re afraid of, though? Those who commit serious, violent offenses? In terms of reforming the system, Levin says, “that’s not where we start.” Yet he goes on to say that his group, as does Holcomb, wants to see the country start talking about what victims really need and want. “One of the things people wrongly assume is that victims want the harshest sentence.” Among the reasons they may not, he notes: People on probation pay vastly more in restitution and compensation—court-ordered obligations paid by criminals to their victims—than those in prison.

“It’s interesting,” adds Scott Bass, executive director of the North Carolina group Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. “The number-one thing victims want, in my view—and I’ve talked to hundreds of crime victims—is information.” He says that, like Gregg, they want to know a loved one’s last words, or whether that person suffered. Sometimes they also want to impart information, in a face-to-face meeting with the wrongdoers, to tell them “You didn’t just break the law. You hurt my family.”

But that doesn’t happen in the criminal-justice system, according to Bass, who adds that what victims tell him “over and over and over again is that the process has little to do with them.” It’s about what law is broken, who did it, and how they will be punished. “The victim is nowhere in there.”

Gregg says he didn’t feel part of Rubi’s first trial. Nor did the harsh sentence handed down in March 1995—the worst possible short of the death penalty—bring him peace. Ironically, it was a request for resentencing two decades later, and what then ensued, that Gregg says “was the best thing that happened to me.”

Gregg had been trying to put Hank’s murder out of his head. He marked its anniversary one final time last year. From then on, he resolved, he would mark Hank’s October 13 birthday, remembering his life, not his death. When October rolled around, he invited friends to Witness and toasted his dad.

A month later, he heard from the San Diego deputy district attorney who had prosecuted Rubi in 1994. Rubi had petitioned the court for a new sentencing hearing. This was only possible because California had passed a law in 2013 that allows a “second chance,” in the form of a shot at parole, to lifers who committed their crimes while under 18. Senate Bill 9, as it was called, arose out of a national re-evaluation of juvenile brain development and the implications it carried for the justice system. Citing juveniles’ immaturity and impulsivity, the U.S. Supreme Court had in a recent ruling indicated that judges should impose life-without-parole sentences on children with great caution. A number of states, including California, rewrote their laws to limit such sentences for juveniles. Rubi’s hearing was to be held in late January 2014.

“I wanted to be present,” Gregg says. He means that both literally and figuratively. Along with planning a trip to San Diego, he absorbed the details of the case in a way that he did not the first time around. He read hundreds of pages of court and prison files. He learned that Rubi came from a broken home, got involved with gangs, and had a drug problem. None of that excused Rubi’s actions, in Gregg’s mind, but it made his dad’s killer more human.

When Gregg saw Rubi walk into the San Diego courtroom, he saw someone more like himself than he would have previously thought. “It allowed me to understand that he’s not the same guy who shot my dad,” Gregg says. “Twenty years later he was, like me, a little pudgy.” Middle-aged. He had a wife: a high-school sweetheart who had married him after he had received—and despite—the life sentence. She walked over to Gregg. “I’m so sorry for what happened to your dad,” she said.

Gregg’s sister brought a picture of their dad to court and asked the judge to keep Rubi locked up, forever. Lydia wrestled with her position, she told me recently by phone from Chula Vista. “I’m a mom. So I’m on the other side, looking at his mom’s perspective.” Still, she worried that he might get out and harm someone else’s family.

Gregg, at the hearing, didn’t argue with his sister’s position, but he didn’t agree with it either. “I was OK with him getting out,” he says.

And that’s what is likely to happen, one day. “Is his heart so black, to use a term, that he will never, never, never change?” asked Judge Frederic Link of Rubi. Link decided not and adjusted Rubi’s sentence to 25 years to life, making him eligible for parole almost immediately.

Rubi has a choice of when to apply to the parole board, and has decided to wait two years, when he might have a stronger case. As the prosecutor pointed out at the resentencing hearing, Rubi has participated in few rehabilitative programs.

“How’s this for a screwed-up sense of justice?” Gregg asks. “I in some ways want to help him when he gets out of prison.” He says it’s a feeling that stems from wanting to make sure that Rubi doesn’t falter in the way that his sister fears.

“There’s also a percentage of me that wants to . . . ” He sighs. “I don’t know if I want to say this. OK, sure, why not? We’re being honest, right? There’s a part of me that wants to wait for him to get out of prison, have kids, wait for them to be my age, and kill him. That’s the real part of it. My emotions swing so hard, it’s difficult for me to process sometimes.”

Alison, taking it all in, seems momentarily stunned. She pauses for a beat when, finally, I ask her what she makes of it all. Then she launches into an extended riff that illuminates where she’s headed with the campaign she’s about to spring on the country.

“It’s funny,” she begins. “The last month, I had an opportunity to talk with people thinking about violent crime.” They included Bass from the North Carolina group and a Brooklyn woman named Danielle Sered, who directs an organization that, as its website puts it, facilitates “a dialogue process designed to recognize the harm done, identify the needs and interests of those harmed, and develop appropriate sanctions to hold the responsible party accountable.”

“So how would the last 22 years have looked if that opportunity had been presented to Gregg?” she wonders. “Even if he wasn’t ready to take anybody up on the offer until year six or seven or 12 or 13. What might have changed if there had been a kind of support, if our criminal-justice system actually focused on the victims instead of . . . ”

She trails off into what she calls her “floating hypotheses”—that the fear of “vigilante justice” of the sort entertained in her husband’s darker moments has led the state into an outsized role. “We knights in shining armor, we prosecutors, we are going to step in and take care of this . . . on behalf of the victim.

“I think for a surprising number of victims that’s not what they want, not what they need. What they need, I think, is for really capable, highly trained, sensitive people to basically bug the shit out of them until they’re ready to engage and talk. That’s a crude way of saying it. But just be there. Just be there. Check in on them, talk to them, deal with the fact that they’ve had this emotional trauma. Who are the people coming to mow your lawn when you can’t function? Who’s coming to deliver your bread? And who says, ‘Hey, if you ever want to have a conversation with that person [who put you in this state], we can make that happen.’ ”

Here, Holcomb delves deep into her spitballing. “Maybe, ultimately, sentencing shouldn’t happen in really violent crimes for five years. We’re going to say, once guilt is established, you’re going to stay in custody for a year at least and we’re going to check in with the victims. We’re going to create some process for them. And we’re going to have a sentencing process down the road once they’ve had a chance to process and think about what’s appropriate.”

When I ask, Holcomb confirms that she is saying that victims should, somehow, help determine sentencing. It’s an idea that would surely raise a lot of questions. For instance, which victims do you listen to? Gregg was OK with Rubi getting out, but his brother and sister were not. A lot of victims want sentences to be as long as possible, confirms Lew Cox, executive director of Tacoma-based Violent Crime Victim Services.

Take Melissa Hansen, a Pierce County woman who had a powerful, emotional meeting with her dad’s killer at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla several years ago. She says she saw “more of the human element” in killer William Schorr than she was prepared for, and in the process of forgiving him gained a sense of power she never felt during the trial. Still, she says prison is where Schorr belongs. Not the death penalty she once sought for him and co-defendant Jeremy Hosford, mind you. But certainly Schorr’s full sentence of 34 years.

Holcomb knows that she has a big challenge in convincing victims like Hansen, among others. “For me the hardest and most exciting work is figuring out how to tell the story,” she says, meaning the story of how incarceration rates could and should come down. She’s obviously chosen a central theme with her focus on victims.

Yet, of course, the story she will eventually tell has to address offenders too. She touches on some of the arguments she’s developing around what research reveals about these people, one of them being that men tend to “age out” of crime. There’s no reason to keep someone who, say, committed an armed robbery at 20 in prison until they’re 60, even if someone died in the crime, she contends. The concept of redemption will surely figure into her arguments too. She says it’s an important theme for many, particularly religious conservatives, questioning a lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality.

“I guess at my core I think having prisons and jails makes sense for immobilizing someone and removing the threat to self and others,” she says. But it seems a conclusion she has come to after wrestling with her conscience. “I think most Americans have no concept of what it’s like to be in a cage for a day,” she says.

“Do you think I deserve to go home?” This is what Oscar Rubi asked his wife during one of her visits to prison in 2011. It was soon after the bill was introduced that would give juveniles sentenced to life a chance at parole, and Rubi was contemplating the real possibility of freedom for the first time in decades.

“Why do you say that?” she responded.

“Because I caused so much pain.”

Clara, as his wife asks to be known, recounts the conversation to me in early January. Trying to reach Rubi, I caught up with her first.

Clara is not the person you expect a lifer’s wife to be. Once involved in gangs herself, she firmly turned her back on that life long ago, earned a college degree in business studies, got a job as operations manager for a California company, and became a committed Christian. She was headed this way even as she married a man convicted of murder and sentenced to life.

“I was 19. I wouldn’t say it was the best decision,” she laughs. But she loved him. She says she never saw him do drugs—although he has admitted to using heavily at the time—or even be mean. “He was that boyfriend who was always so sweet, who opened doors.”

Having made the commitment, she resolved to “stick it out,” even though it meant spending her weekends in a prison, unable even to sleep beside her husband. The state ended conjugal visits for lifers in 1996. She says the sacrifice is worth it given the “hope and joy” it gives her husband. And yet, she says she’s hard on him.

Rather than tell him he deserved to get out, she said, “That’s up to God.”

When Rubi remarked recently that his mom, having just turned 56, was getting old, Clara said, “Well, at least you get to see your mom.” Gregg, Lydia, and Frank, she reminded him, lost their dad at just that age. “He needs to understand that he’s not a victim,” she explains.

When I finally reach Rubi, who calls me from the Ironwood State Prison in California, he speaks as if that idea has sunk in. “What I did, it affected a lot of people—not just my fate but Mr. Holcomb’s family.”

Rubi sounds a little nervous but forthcoming. His sentences tumble one after the other, in a slight Mexican accent that reveals his place of birth. (He says his parents brought him here, legally, at age 7.) Yet he’s hesitant to go into the details of his crime. “That’s always been the most difficult for me to speak on. It’s pretty troubling.”

In a subsequent call, he’s willing to talk more. “Really, my intention wasn’t to kill him at all but to cause fear,” he says of Hank. “At the moment he tried to drive away, it created a bigger confusion.” He says he’s still confused as to why he did what he did.

At the time of his initial sentencing, his family members, pleading for Rubi to have a chance at parole, said the teen was strung out on methamphetamine, sleepless, for eight days before the murder. “I could say I was under the influence and all that,” Rubi tells me now. “At the same time, I have to accept my role in it.”

How can you know whether remorse is sincere? Or whether a convict’s “rehabilitation” is genuine? Inmates know that their freedom rests on expressing the right sentiments. “I have to prove to them that I’ve changed,” Rubi tells me, alluding to parole-board members.

Clara thinks he has changed. While she says he once talked about himself as a “stupid kid,” not seeming to understand the gravity of what he did, he has in recent years repeatedly brought up the Holcombs.

About a dozen years ago, long before parole was on the table, Clara says her husband asked her to say a prayer for Hank on the anniversary of the day Rubi killed him. He asked her to find out Hank’s birthday too. Rubi says he just wanted to think about Hank then.

It’s eerie how Rubi hit upon some of the same notions as Gregg: wanting to remember Hank on the day he was born, not just the day he died, and mulling over some kind of communication with the Holcomb family. Rubi says he considered writing a letter, but didn’t know how the Holcombs would feel about that.

Rubi describes himself as being reborn since the resentencing. “Before, I lived here without any hope.” As a lifer, he says, the prison allowed him access to a limited number of educational and self-improvement programs. That changed with his resentencing. And so he says he sat down and tried to figure out some things: the person he used to be, the person he was now, the person he wanted to become. “Before that, I never looked that deep into myself.”

Since then, he says, he’s thrown himself into groups (for anger management, drug addiction, peer counseling) and correspondence classes through a local community college. He hopes to become certified as an alcohol- and drug-addiction counselor.

He recalls that when Gregg spoke at the resentencing hearing, he said that if his dad were there, he’d tell Rubi “not to half-ass anything.” Says Rubi, “That was one of the statements I’ve held on to.”

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