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When ex-con Victor Woods needed a second chance, he turned to the officer who put him away. Today that officer is Largo's police chief.
By Demorris A. Lee, Times Staff Writer
Published December 17, 2007
LARGO - In March 1984, masked men robbed a grocery store in suburban Chicago. Buffalo Grove, Ill., police detective Lester Aradi, investigating a string of similar crimes, found a beer can at the scene. The fingerprint he lifted from it led him to Victor Woods.
Aradi went to Woods' last known address and went through the trash. He noticed some newspapers with articles clipped out of them.
"The articles about the armed robberies we were investigating were the ones cut out," said Aradi, now police chief in Largo.
The detective put together a task force of 40 officers. They followed Woods in unmarked cars. One night he led them to Chicago. That was when Aradi understood Woods' system.
"He had recruited gang members from the projects 45 miles away," Aradi said. "He paid them next to nothing to do the robberies. That's how shrewd he was."
Woods was 19 years old.
On March 18, 1984, Woods parked his Mercedes across the street from a grocery store in Aradi's town. Aradi called the store owner and told him to lock the doors and not open them. The gang members couldn't get in and were picked up.
Woods tried to get away, but officers surrounded him. Aradi pulled Woods to the ground, placed his foot in the small of the teenager's back and pressed the barrel of a shotgun to his head.
It was an unusual way to make a friend.
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Woods received several visits from Aradi while he was in the Lake County, Ill., jail. Aradi brought candy bars and copies of Mad magazine.
"I tried to sit down and talk and chat and get more information about the ongoing activity that he or his associates may have been involved in," Aradi said. "And Victor said, 'No way, no how.' He gave me nothing."
Woods kept the candy and the magazines.
"He was like one of those television detectives," Woods said. "He was always professional and he always treated me with respect."
Woods would spend several years in state prison. Aradi would move up the chain of command of the Buffalo Grove Police Department.
Woods was released from prison but soon nabbed again, this timefor a complicated $40-million Visa Gold card scheme.
He spent six years in a federal prison.
Finally, in 1997, Woods was ready to get his life straight. Out of prison for about a year and half, he called the man who first locked him up.
Aradi had become the patrol division commander and was working one of the biggest cocaine seizures in Lake County history.
On that busy day, Aradi was told that a Victor Woods was on the line.
"Why would Victor be calling?" Aradi wondered.
Over the phone, Woods told Aradi something he had never heard before.
"I just got out and I wanted to apologize personally for committing those robberies."
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A day or so later, Woods and Aradi met at the Buffalo Grove Police Department. The other officers stared as the cop poured coffee for the career criminal.
They talked about the arrest. Aradi shared some tidbits about how Woods got caught.
During that meeting, Aradi invited Woods to speak to a graduate class he was teaching at Roosevelt University. Aradi wanted his Public Administration class to hear the perspective of someone who had been on the other side of the law. It would be Woods' first public speech.
Now Woods speaks to law enforcement agencies and prisoners across the country. He has written a book about his life, which features a photo and stories about Aradi. A movie by Rebel Entertainment is in the making. Recently, Woods addressed a subcommittee on gangs at Oklahoma's state capital.
For all of it, he credits Aradi.
"He took a chance on me," said Woods, 43. "He didn't have to give me a chance. He did and I credit him for helping me to be where I am today."
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Aradi has been chief of police in Largo since 2001. In March of this year, Woods moved to Sarasota. Aradi arranged for him to speak at the Pinellas County Jail.
At the jail in September, Woods pointed to Aradi as he spoke to a group of inmates in cell block 4C2.
Woods paced in front of the men, who sat in plastic chairs taking in his every word. At times, a vein popped from his neck as he stressed his points.
"That man put his job on the line to give me an opportunity," Woods said. "There is somebody out there willing to give you an opportunity. It's a miracle the relationship I have with this man."
Woods said he couldn't get a job at McDonald's when he got out of jail because he "used to rob McDonald's." He said the energy and intelligence that he once used to do bad, he now uses for good.
"Those were marketing skills that I used back then," Woods said. "I took the same skills and marketed my book and sold 50,000 copies."
The book, A Breed Apart: A Journey to Redemption, first appeared in 1999 and was republished by a division of Simon & Schuster in 2004.
Woods preached about the "fear of failure" and the need "to take a look at yourself and who you associate with." He preached about why it's important not to let your current situation or the past dictate how you can live in the future.
"We have to realize that Jesus' disciples were prisoners," Woods told the group.
"We are just like his disciples. If Jesus took a chance with prisoners for one of the most important missions, there is someone out there doing good that will trust you, that will give you another chance.
"Find that person."
Aradi sat to the side, arms folded, and watched the man he had once sent to prison move a group of men to a standing ovation.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.
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