Billy Brownlee knew he was in trouble. He had a feeling something was wrong when his sister called and told him to contact their mother. The two—son and mother—had always been close, but Brownlee had been running the streets for the last several years.
When the two connected by telephone, Brownlee’s mother said, “Have you seen the ‘Austin Voice?’” which was a community newspaper in Chicago. “You need to get it because you’re in trouble.”
That was an understatement.
When Brownlee got a copy of the free publication, which was widely distributed throughout the area, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“My picture is on the front page,” Brownlee recalled. Not only that, but the newspaper urged people who saw Brownlee to call a 1-800 number in order to aid in his arrest.
Things hadn’t always been this bad for Brownlee. He grew up on Chicago’s west side, one of six children.
“My mom did everything she could for me,” Brownlee said. “My mom and my dad broke up early on, and I had a step-dad who played that role. He actually played that role well. He actually provided me with everything that a father would. I did have a two-parent home.”
But when Brownlee got to high school, he was exposed to gangs and drugs.
“That’s when I was introduced to so-called ‘hanging out’ and ‘hanging with the guys in the crowd,’” he said. “That was a huge mistake for me; even though my mom was strict on me, I still found a way to sneak out and do these things.”
These “things” eventually led to running with the Vice Lords street gang.
“I got involved with that type of activity because the area where I grew up—that was what they were doing,” Brownlee said. “Even though I was wearing a neck tie running around with these guys, claiming that I am a Vice Lord too, I was still going to school. I still had a job. Almost fooled my family. It kind of escalated from there.”
Gangs, drugs, guns
By escalation, Brownlee meant—in addition to running with the Vice Lords—getting involved with drugs and eventually guns.
“Once I graduated high school, that’s when the crack epidemic really just [took off],” he said. “I got caught up in that whirlwind. It became an epidemic for me and an epidemic for my community. I learned how to be—they called it the ‘street chemist.’ I learned how to do that very well.”
Then came the guns. Since Brownlee always enjoyed dressing up—“neck tie and the nice sweater and penny loafers”—those around him didn’t think others would suspect him of running guns.
They were right.
“I became the major gun supplier of the Vice Lords,” he said.
The day he discovered his photo on the cover of the local newspaper, Brownlee began to discover what had caused the police to look for him. Unknown to him at the time, Brownlee had been part of a major three-year criminal investigation involving guns in the Chicago area. He was one of 72 people indicted.
His charge: conspiracy to commit offense against the United States.
“I had no idea what that meant,” Brownlee said.
He had sold guns to an undercover officer.
“[The undercover officer] was introduced to me by a friend who was in trouble with the law,” Brownlee recalled. “I’d sell a gun for $70, $80 on the street; [the undercover officer] gave me $400. It didn’t ring to me because I had a drug habit that was blinding me about what was actually happening.”
When all this sunk in, Brownlee knew he needed to turn himself in.
So he had his friend, Ron, a local pastor, drive him to the Metropolitan Correction Center in Chicago.
“This was my first experience with jail,” Brownlee said. “When I got there, the door slammed. When steel slams on steel and then the steel door slams behind the steel on steel, then you hear this thing going click, click, click, boom, it’s right there that fear came. I was afraid.”
On July 19, 1992, Brownlee was sentenced to 24 months, a fortunate sentence for him since the prosecutor was asking for much more time. He had been charged with selling seven guns and one shotgun, but all the weapons were clean; they didn’t trace back to anything that Brownlee could be charged with further.
Years of addiction
Brownlee’s story might have ended there. However, the power of addiction shadowed him for more than a decade.
After he was released from prison, Brownlee had to serve five years on supervised release, meaning he could not get in trouble again, or he would have to return to prison. He remained sober during this time but as he completed the supervised release, he began to delve into drugs again.
The drugs led him back to jail—seven times.
“Trying to feed that habit because I’m blinded by the addiction,” he said. “That was just a one-two punch. You use drugs, you go to jail. I didn’t realize that because my addiction kept saying, ‘You can do this. They’re not going to see you this time. That TV sitting right there … just snatch it and run.’”
Years went by.
By the end of 2011, Brownlee was looking for something new. His addiction and the constant need to feed his habit had left him wanting something else. So he decided to get out of Chicago.
“I packed up everything I had, and I put it in the trunk of [my Cadillac], and I drove to Minnesota,” he said.
He had been to the state before and since he hadn’t burned any bridges while he was here, Brownlee thought Minnesota would be a good place to start over.
At first, it wasn’t.
“I come back here, and the heroin here … it’s 97% pure,” he said. “It’s not the 34%/35% in Chicago, but it’s 96%/97% pure here. I had a few dollars in my pocket and my mind said, ‘Don’t do it.’”
But he did.
Soon he was nursing a $500 to $600 a week drug habit. He was also passing out after getting high, something he now can see was a sign of overdosing.
‘I don’t want to die’
But Brownlee had a life-changing realization one day.
“I really got to the point where I was tired,” he recalled. “This is really getting to be a problem. I don’t want to die. I never did want to die. I was brought up in church, baptized and saved and filled with the Holy Ghost.”
During this new realization, Brownlee kept hearing a Scripture in his head: “You have to give up everything to follow me.”
In the fall of 2012, Brownlee sat down at a computer and began to look up treatment facilities. After several attempts to narrow down the search field, he eventually settled on MetroHope Recovery Ministries and its New Hope Center.
“I was looking for somewhere to go because I couldn’t stop on my own,” he said. “I tried, and it didn’t work well for me.”
After his initial intake meeting, Brownlee was frustrated that he would have to give up cigarettes and his car before entering the program.
“Then I said to myself, ‘I’m dying,’” he remembered. “‘They are not going to bury me in this Cadillac, and I’m not going to be buried with cigarettes. I’m tired.’ And then that Scripture came again: ‘You want to follow me? You’ve got to give up everything, and I mean everything.’”
So he entered the program in November of 2012 and stayed until August of 2013, graduating in April of 2013.
Over time, Brownlee became a senior resident at New Hope and someone others looked to for advice and counsel.
A job and new goals
Upon his graduation, someone at his church told Brownlee about a job opening at Jimmy John’s. After successfully completing the employment test, Brownlee was hired as a sandwich maker. Then he became a supervisor and is now co-manager—in line to become manager of a store.
He has achieved many of the goals he set out to conquer: getting clean, maintaining sobriety and finding employment.
He has three more he wants to achieve: becoming a store manager, owning a franchise and giving young kids hope.
“My other goal is to grab these young kids at 16 and give them a job, give them an opportunity not to be on the streets,” Brownlee said. “Because I think 16 is a time when they are vulnerable; they don’t know which way to go. If you can grab them at 16 and show them the way they should go when they get older, they won’t forget.
“I want to mentor a lot of these young guys so they don’t have to have a story quite like mine. So they won’t have to go through treatment facilities and go to the penitentiary and go through these other heart-breaking things ….”
From strong family beginnings to life on the streets to addiction and now to new opportunities, Brownlee has experienced numerous ups and downs. But one thing he knows he must always do: keep Jesus at the center.
“I never took Jesus Christ out of anything that I did,” Brownlee said. “He was the beginning of me wanting to be clean. And right now, today, he’s the sole center of what I’m accomplishing. I keep Him first. Do I make all perfect decisions? No. I tell you what. I’m happy I can learn from these decisions. I understand that these things are a journey.”
Learn more at www.metrohope.org.
— by Scott Noble