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‘Visionary’ didn’t keep promises to help violent teenager

One day last August, Gwendolyn Sands stood before a Fulton County judge and promised to rehabilitate a teenage boy already well on his way to a life of violence.

She called herself a visionary.

Her organization, Visions Unlimited, would pair the boy with a “life coach” for “24/7 supervision,” Sands told the judge. Her staff would instruct the boy in life skills, career readiness and the perils of street gangs. They would hold “family support” meetings every month – “and more often,” Sands said, “as necessary.”

Later, she would even agree to take the boy into her own home. It seemed the only way to shelter him from the streets where he had stuck a pistol in a woman’s face and robbed her.

But Sands kept almost none of her promises to transform Jayden Myrick. Now Myrick is charged with murder, accused of shooting 34-year-old Christian Broder during a robbery on July 8 outside Atlanta’s Capital City Club. Broder, an Atlanta native who lived in Washington, D.C., died July 20. He left behind a wife and an infant daughter.

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And, at 17, Myrick faces life in prison – the very outcome the judge had hoped Sands would help prevent.

The case calls attention to a rarely glimpsed corner of Georgia’s criminal-justice system. As the state tries to reduce one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates by focusing on rehabilitation rather than long prison terms, judges sometimes rely on private organizations like Visions Unlimited to help turn offenders around. But those programs operate with little or no oversight, or accountability for failures. Fulton County’s judges have no roster of vetted organizations that work to keep defendants out of trouble.

Sands, who started Visions Unlimited in the 2000s, is a 71-year-old former school teacher who claims no formal training in social work or criminology. Her organization operates out of a borrowed room in a public library in southwest Atlanta. It lost a contract with the Atlanta Public Schools in 2010 after it stopped paying its employees. It lost its tax-exempt status as a non-profit foundation three years ago and has no apparent source of funding. Even its website is shut down.

Sands, too, has a history of financial problems, public records show: seven evictions, one foreclosure, four wage garnishments, five judgments for bad debts, one lien seeking to collect $33,000 in unpaid federal taxes, and one arrest for passing a bad check.

She declined numerous requests for an interview. In an email on Friday, she described Visions Unlimited as “an independent self-funded grassroots initiative.” Earlier, the organization released a statement saying Sands’ son – who served prison time for forgery and is shown on corporate records as the organization’s chief financial officer – would take questions about Myrick on Monday “for 30 minutes only and no longer.”

“All services were provided” to Myrick, the statement said. “He regularly attended sessions, was present for his hours of work obligation as well as his classroom attendance.”

The statement said Myrick did not act inappropriately under the organization’s care.

“Visions Unlimited is not responsible for Jayden or for any of the other students during their personal time spent away from the program.”

Fulton Superior Court Judge Doris Downs, who twice released Myrick into Sands’ custody, declined to comment. Other court officials would not answer questions about why Downs or other judges trusted Visions Unlimited or whether they vetted Sands’ credentials. In a statement, Chief Judge Robert McBurney deflected responsibility for monitoring the performance of such organizations.

“Judges appropriately rely on the representations from sworn officers of the court such as defense counsel as to the nature and extent of services to be provided,” McBurney’s statement said.

But court transcripts, public records and interviews show how a convergence of misplaced faith and a lack of oversight enabled Myrick to continue his violent path.

‘Give it up’

Late the afternoon of April 15, 2015, a 39-year-old woman was walking toward her townhouse in southeast Atlanta when two boys approached on the sidewalk. One was unusually short, the woman would remember later, and he wore shorts with no shirt. The other had on a white T-shirt, blue shorts and a white hat. He was carrying the gun.

“Give it up,” the boy demanded, reaching for the woman’s purse as he shoved the barrel of the pistol into her face.

The short boy told him to shoot the woman if she resisted.

A neighbor’s security camera recorded the boys running away with the purse, accompanied by a third boy who had hung back at the end of the block.

The next day, the Atlanta police arrested Myrick, along with Kolby Price and Damarius T. Matthews. Myrick and Price were 14. Matthews was 18. At 4-foot-10 and 100 pounds, he was the alleged ringleader and was sentenced to adult prison.

Although they were juveniles, Myrick and Price also were charged as adults under a 1994 law that toughened penalties for young offenders who commit serious crimes. Both pleaded guilty in February 2016. Judge Downs ordered Price to serve five years of his 15-year sentence and Myrick, who wielded the gun, to serve seven. But because they were still underage, the law required that they be held in a juvenile detention center until their 17th birthdays.

Sometime in 2016, Myrick entered the Sumter Youth Development Campus in Americus, about 140 miles south of Atlanta. Sumter did little to rehabilitate him. If anything, he turned into a more violent criminal.

He became a leader of the Bloods gang there and tattooed a gang symbol on his face, according to court records. The detention center cited him 32 times for violating rules. He also racked up three more criminal charges: two misdemeanors for damaging government property and a felony aggravated assault. In the latter case, he placed bars of soap into a sock and used it to beat another juvenile. It took six staples to close a wound on the other boy’s face.

In May 2017, Myrick transferred to another juvenile detention center. After a rough start, he settled into a routine of studying for a high school equivalency degree.

In June of last year, the Department of Juvenile Justice notified Downs that Myrick’s 17th birthday was approaching. On that date, the law gives judges two options in cases involving juveniles convicted as adults: prison or probation.

The state doesn’t track how many cases like this come before Georgia judges, said Randee Waldman, director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory University’s law school. But by all accounts, she said, “it’s pretty rare” for judges to grant probation.

Downs, a former prosecutor who has been a Superior Court judge since 1996, was willing to take a chance on Myrick. He would get out of prison in a few years, anyway, she said in court, and serving more time would only prepare him for even more serious crimes.

Downs summoned Myrick to her courtroom in Atlanta three times last August for hearings on his possible release. From the start, prosecutors objected. Freeing Myrick, they argued in court papers, “would present a significant danger to the public.”

Myrick’s behavior reinforced their argument. On Aug. 10, he told the judge he wanted a chance for rehabilitation. Shortly after the hearing, though, he allegedly attacked other juvenile prisoners in a courthouse holding cell. The others said they were punched, kicked and choked, and forced to lick the floor and eat food off a toilet seat.

Downs decided to give Myrick his freedom, regardless. She would rely on Gwendolyn Sands to help him stay free.

‘Visionary’

Sands seemed an unlikely choice to take charge of Myrick.

She taught school in Richmond, Virginia, before moving to the Atlanta area in the 1990s. She supervised Head Start programs for Clark Atlanta University and got a contract to provide staff for Atlanta’s alternative high school.

For a few years after she formed Visions Unlimited, grants rolled in – some from other foundations, some from government agencies. The organization’s largest funder, federal tax documents show, was what is now known as the Woodson Center, a Washington-based group that advocated “violence free zones” in several cities, including Atlanta. It gave Visions Unlimited almost $3.9 million between 2007 and 2010.

The center’s founder, Robert Woodson Sr., invited Sands to the White House in 2007 to speak at an event sponsored by the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. A newsletter published by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty quoted Sands as saying her organization’s work had helped reduce school violence in Atlanta by “48 percent to 50 percent.”

Sands was seen as “a very talented person,” Terence Mathis, the Woodson Center’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. She was “able to reach kids where many other people may not have been able to.”

By 2011, however, Sands’ funding sources had run dry. In her organization’s tax return for that year, it reported revenue of about $76,000, down from more than $1 million in 2010.

Visions Unlimited never filed another tax return, prompting the IRS to revoke its tax-exempt status in 2015. As a result, donors could no longer receive tax breaks for contributions.

Sands kept a low public profile until 2016. She has appeared at least twice since then before the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, once making a vague appeal for support of “restorative justice.”

Then, last August, she appeared in court to accept Myrick into Visions Unlimited. She said his violent behavior didn’t worry her, and she laid out an impressive-sounding array of services he would get.

“We developed this very, very structured proposed service delivery plan which I know addresses many of the issues that the court had regarding supervision, regarding structure,” Sands said, according to a transcript of the hearing. She already had chosen Myrick’s life coach, “who will provide that 24/7 supervision,” she said, “which would include phone calls, visits.”

She went on: Life skills. Education. Career readiness. Gang intervention. Family support.

“And the bottom,” Sands said, “is just monitoring.”

She told Downs that Visions Unlimited had a “1.16 recidivism rate.”

“And that’s not any credit to what I do,” she said. “I’m just a visionary.”

She didn’t explain how she calculated the recidivism rate. Downs didn’t ask.

Instead, the judge praised Sands for an “unbelievable record of success” and told Myrick his best chance for rehabilitation lay with Visions Unlimited.

“I’m hoping that you will see the good in humanity through the program that Ms. Sands has to offer you,” she told Myrick. “And I am putting you now on probation to Ms. Sands.”

Barely three weeks passed before Myrick got into trouble again – this time, for violating his probation.

Prosecutors saw new Instagram posts that showed Myrick hanging out with gang members and offering prescription drugs for sale, court records show. Downs revoked his probation and sent him to the Fulton County Jail.

The judge then held a series of hearings on what to do next. She made it clear that Sands’ role was crucial.

In a November hearing, she instructed Sands “to have a case plan in place” for Myrick’s release. That day, and again in January, Downs imposed an additional condition for Myrick’s freedom: that he live with Sands.

A ride across town

Jauvena Myrick’s phone rang at 5 a.m. on Feb. 21. It was her son Jayden. He was getting out of jail and needed to be picked up. Sands wasn’t taking him home, after all.

“She stood in court and said she would let him come to her house,” Jauvena Myrick said in an interview. But “I was in charge of monitoring him – 24 hours. I still had to work, and I still have four other kids. It was very hard.”

Her son’s involvement with Visions Unlimited, she said, amounted to little besides GED classes at a branch library on Metropolitan Parkway, nearly five miles from their house. She said there were no family support meetings, no 24/7 supervision.

“Every time I asked (Sands) for resources or anything, she would say it was going to happen,” Jauvena Myrick said. “But it never did.”

A state probation officer checked on Myrick at the library, where Sands reported that he was doing well in her program, said Michael Nail, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Supervision. But he wasn’t living with Sands, as the judge ordered, apparently because of concerns about his history of violence, Nail said.

In early July, about four months after he left jail, Myrick stayed home while his mother went to Florida. Sometime on July 8, he caught a ride across town in a stolen Dodge Charger. At the Capital City Club on Brookhaven Drive, four people stood at the gate, waiting for an Uber.

Myrick got out and pulled a gun. He demanded their belongings. One of them, Christian Broder, stepped toward him, trying to talk him down from the robbery.

Then, according to the police, Myrick squeezed the trigger. All visions of his rehabilitation vanished.

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