The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Our people: Sharing the word

 

October 13, 2019

David Grieder

Between splitting pistachios and a few asides to share local history and arrowhead specimens from the Roosevelt County land his family has kept since the 1940s, Stokes told The News on Friday of his time in prison, coming to grips with the past and subsequent bible study efforts with local jail inmates.

Jerry Stokes said he doesn't want publicity, but he approached The News last month to share his story during the last day of a murder trial for a man he'd assisted in baptizing early this year through a jail bible study program. Stokes, who turned 80 on Sept. 14, has since 2002 met on a weekly basis with inmates at jails in Clovis and Portales. Before that, he served 13 years of his own in prison after being convicted in the late 1980s of operating what contemporary newspaper accounts described as the largest illegal methamphetamine operation in the state of New Mexico. Studying the Bible in depth during solitary time behind bars, Stokes likened his story of forgiveness, redemption and transformation to that of convicted murderer Clyde Thompson, who served some three decades in Texas prisons and subsequently worked as a chaplain and minister for incarcerated people.

The News spoke at more length with Stokes at the Roosevelt County property where his family moved in 1943.

You and a few other men were indicted in 1988 for several charges involving the manufacture of a controlled substance. Why did you do it?

Well, I knew a guy who worked for an oil company, and I saw him at an auction sale down south here a couple years ago. I hadn't seen him in 25 years. He said, 'Jerry I got a question for you, and you don't got to answer if you don't want to." And he said, "Why in the hell did you do what you did?" and I said, "Well, since you ask I'll tell you: to save a ranch and a marriage. That's why."

For me, neither one of them worked out.

Tell me more about those circumstances.

We got in debt to the bank (in the mid-80s), and (the bank president) was foreclosing, advertising in the paper. We had already sold our (100) cows. I couldn't stand (the bank president) having (my wife's) ranch (in Kenna), that her granddad had put together. So I gambled trying to save a ranch and a marriage and it all went by the wayside.

You realized making meth was a fast way to get money?

Well, that's what we thought. ... We maybe even started thinking about it in '86, but we weren't really after it until '87. We knew we were in trouble, and we was ust fixing to bust up the glass and quit when the helicopters flew over in January '88. ... Everybody from the DEA, the ATF, the Sheriff and state police, they were all there.

Did you make money on it for a while?

Evidently. But when it was all over I didn't have any money.

What did it take for you to get started? Did you have any relevant background?

I started (college) and Daddy told me chemistry was a good field to get in, but I didn't have any background. Two days later I saw that I was flunking. I didn't have no background for chemistry, mathematics, shoot. I just barely got out of high school (1957). They kept me in school because I could play football and baseball and on the wrestling team.

How did you manage then?

We got a guy out of Albuquerque, he showed us how to do it, and he was a 'druggie deluxe.' He showed us....

What was the extent of the operation, by the time it collapsed?

One of the pictures that they took at the lab, we had a bunch of shelves, and there was maybe 100 gallon pickle jars that you could look and see that there was meth in it. In the newspaper, they exaggerated it. They stated it was the largest lab that they'd busted in the United States, but that wasn't the facts. I knew of one in an oil field, they made 100 pounds a day. Meth is a hard drug, and it remains a major factor in crime in this county and this state. There's no question about that.

Did it bother your conscience at all, contributing to that problem?

I'd be lying to you if I said it didn't.

At the time you were producing meth, had you encountered people who used?

Well, at that time not really.

Did you ever use yourself?

No. I didn't smoke, I didn't drink. But I've seen so many people in jail, that if they're on that stuff for very long, it's obvious. Their hair is dingy, they lose a lot of weight.

How do you reconcile that? Do you have a way of coming to grips with the consequences?

The consequences, a lot of them are still there. You'd like to forget some of the things, but the things that you'd like to forget are still in your mind.

Some things cannot be undone.

Certainly. But that's what the history of Clyde Thompson is about. Clyde couldn't hardly read, he wasn't educated, but by the time he got out, he had spent hours and hours reading the bible, and the story is that he memorized it. When he got out, he was preaching the bible to 60 or 80 men.

I see some parallels between your story and his, at least in terms of spreading "the good word" after being released from jail. Do you think you had a similar experience, with deepening your faith while in jail?

Most people don't know it, but there's so much noise there (in prison), you can't hardly concentrate. But when I was in Fort Worth, I was in the cell by myself, I could shut the door. I spent ten or twelve hours a day reading the Bible.

You said you were already a Christian at the time of your arrest - what happened for you in jail that was different?

You know,when you read the Bible, Peter was preaching the first sermon after Jesus was crucified, and there's 3,000 people that said 'Crucify him." Then they saw the sky go black, they saw earthquakes, the curtain in the temple split from top to bottom. We talk about that a lot in jail. For those people that said "Crucify him," that was a challenging situation they say. They knew they'd made a mistake, they knew they was wrong, but it took a major issue to convince them. In Acts II, it say, "Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins."

Do you feel like justice was served, like you paid your debt to society?

Well, that's what people tell me. And they'll tell me, they'll say, "Jerry you quit dwelling on the past. You've paid your debt. Move on."

Do you agree with them?

Well, if you don't, it'll run you nuts.

In the course of the past 17 years, making weekly bible study visits to the jails in Clovis or Portales, how many baptisms do you think you've overseen?

As of a few years ago, it was about 100. But I have no idea. It's been a lot of men.

What have we not covered that you want to address?

The one thing that I didn't mention is "God's forgiveness," in spite of all this. That's a subject that's foremost in this whole story. God's forgiveness in spite of Clyde Thompson's problems and everybody else's problems. God's forgiveness is always there. ... In spite of all these mistakes, even though the courthouse may not forget, god is always forgiving. ... You start a new slate.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

I don't know anybody who would want that job.

- Compiled by David Grieder and edited for length and clarity

 
 

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