Part 5 of 6
The story so far: During more than 20 years in prison, Belton Platt works to deepen his faith and rebuild his life.
Belton Platt’s life has come full circle. About a year ago, he returned to the Grier Heights neighborhood, where he once sold cocaine, to speak at an anti-violence rally.
Platt had come from his home in Conway, S.C., to join about 200 people who gathered following the shooting deaths of two young men. Nearly two dozen police officers also attended. The last time Platt met a group of law officers on a Charlotte street, in 1989, they were patting him down and seizing his Mercedes Benz.
This time, as the Rev. Platt took the microphone, they were listening.
He had a lot to say.
He explained that his wrongheaded desire for money cost him more than two decades of his life. He reminded the audience that Christ’s Gospel isn’t only about Wednesday night Bible study and Sunday morning church. It’s about ministering to the hungry, the needy, the afflicted.
He also had a message for all of Charlotte.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
He regrets sowing seeds of destruction that still affect Grier Heights and other neighborhoods.
When Platt concluded, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Dan Kellough shook his hand. That, he said, was awesome.
Kellough has been a Charlotte officer for more than 20 years, long enough to know the name Money Rock and remember Piedmont Courts, the drug-ridden housing project where Platt got his start.
Piedmont Courts is gone, replaced with a mixed-income development that doesn’t concentrate poverty the way Charlotte’s old public housing did. Illegal drugs of choice have changed since Money Rock’s day. Marijuana is bigger. So is heroin. But officers are still trying to keep kids out of the game. Kellough knows the anti-drug argument carries more weight when a former dealer makes it.
“I wish he lived here,” Kellough says. “I would use him. I’d do anything to reach young kids.”
Rebuilding a life
Belton Platt went to federal prison in 1990 as a cocky young man. While in prison, his wife divorced him and three of his sons died violent deaths – one in a botched robbery, one in a suicide and the third, just a year before his release, in a drive-by shooting.
In 2009, son Derrick Dixon, 24, was driving on North Sharon Amity Road when someone in a Toyota Camry shot him in the head. No one has been charged.
The world changed during his prison years, too. The nation was rocked by 9/11, went to war, elected its first black president. It also surpassed Russia to claim the world’s highest incarceration rate, the result of tougher sentencing laws. In the two decades Platt was locked up, America’s prison population more than doubled.
In April 2010, he completed his sentence in Bennettsville, S.C. The system gave him 54 days of credit for every year in prison, so he served nearly 21 years of a 24-year sentence. He was 46, a minister matured by years of Bible study and reflection.
Susan Platt married him in 2003 and waited seven years. The day Platt walked out, she was there. The two climbed into Susan’s car, and he asked for a cellphone so he could call his kids. He looked at it and handed it back. He didn’t know how it worked.
Platt spent a required four months living in a halfway house. Then he and Susan settled in Conway, where, not long after his release, he felt called to launch a church.
He started Rock Ministries Church International out of his home. At first, he and Susan were pleased if a few people attended. But their Sunday services grew quickly. They moved to a storefront, then outgrew that space.
For the past year, Rock Ministries has met in a 100-year-old country church with a graceful white steeple. The congregation rents the building. Platt, always the savvy businessman, negotiated a good deal.
A typical Sunday brings 60 to 75 worshippers. They are black and white, middle-class and poor, occasionally homeless. Though the flock is small, outreach efforts are vigorous. Church members distribute food to the needy and have begun ministering to prisoners in the Horry County Jail.
As a minister, Platt has focused on problems with which he is well acquainted. After marrying Susan and renouncing his philandering ways, he wrote “Ministry of the Husband,” a book that aims to teach men to be the husbands God wants them to be. A friend paid to publish it.
He has volunteered with A Father’s Place, a nonprofit that helps men become involved fathers. He has received training in a program aimed at reducing adolescent pregnancy. The curriculum includes both abstinence and contraception because, as Platt well knows, most teenagers don’t abstain from sex before marriage.
Often, he speaks to teenagers about the costs of dealing drugs. “Once you get locked up,” he tells young men, “you’re going to see how big a fool you was standing out there.”
Many weeks, he drives 150 miles to preach at a Sunday evening service in Charlotte. He also makes a once-a-month report to his parole officer. His supervised release continues until 2015.
Leaving the money behind
Belton and Susan live off a gravel road across from a soybean field, in a four-bedroom house they rent from friends. It’s big, and Platt keeps finding people who need a temporary home, so extra space has come in handy.
The Platts live on Susan’s salary as a law firm legal assistant and Platt’s $1,200-a-month compensation from his church.
Platt once made thousands a week. But when he left prison, he had about $300. This raises a question: What happened to his drug money?
The answer, he says, is he doesn’t know.
By the time he entered prison in 1990, federal agents had confiscated two houses, a Mercedes and jewelry worth more than $100,000. But the government never got the substantial amount of cash he had stashed with friends and family and left in bank safety deposit boxes that others had rented for him. He says he doesn’t know how much it was.
“I left everything behind,” he says. “What happened to it is none of my concern. What I did was wrong. I made that money from selling drugs. You wouldn’t believe how many people owed me when I went to prison. And I let it all go.”
Platt assumes those who were holding his money spent it years ago. If they didn’t, he says he would never try to retrieve it, even to use it for good works. To do so, he says, might open him up to a money-laundering charge, for one thing. But more than that, “I feel like I would be cheating on God.”
Some may question whether a man like Belton Platt – a man who instigated a shootout, sold cocaine and then lied about these things – can change.
Platt responds that it took him years to become the man he is today, and that with God, all things are possible. Money Rock is no more, and he would never go back to that life. “If a person gave me a billion dollars and said just live this life for five minutes,” he says, “I wouldn’t do it.”
Larry Hewitt, the Charlotte lawyer who defended Platt in 1990, has kept in touch with him. Over the years, Hewitt has seen countless defendants turn to religion. Some probably do it because they think it could help in court. Others backslide when their crisis abates. Platt, he believes, is one person who has changed:
“I think Belton Platt said it and lives the life.”
Accepting God’s forgiveness
When Platt was selling drugs, what made him happiest, he says, was helping people – paying rent, buying groceries, giving them money. Helping people is still what makes him happiest. He just does it differently now.
In November, for instance, he and other church volunteers spent an afternoon handing out meals to people on North Tryon Street near the men’s homeless shelter. One woman wasn’t looking for a free meal, but she needed someone to listen to her problems.
“I want you to just pray for me,” she said, tears filling her eyes, “because, to be honest with you, I don’t even like myself.”
You’ve got to accept God’s forgiveness, Platt counseled. “You forgive yourself because God saw fit to forgive you. Stop beating yourself up. Because if you don’t …”
“It’s going to kill me.”
“It’s going to kill you,” he said.
She smiled, nodded and wiped a tear with the back of her hand.
Platt gave her his card and invited her to a church service.
“If you need a ride, call us,” Platt called to her as she left. “We’ll come get you.”
Like the woman on Tryon Street, Platt has had to forgive himself, as he believes God has forgiven him.
While he was in prison, three sons died violent deaths, his oldest son pleaded guilty to murder charges and his remaining seven children grew up without him. The tragedies would not have happened, he believes, had he been in their lives. That is a heavy burden to carry. He says he has not visited his sons’ graves. He is not ready.
Platt says he can’t change history or make up lost years. What’s done is done, he says. He can only move forward.
His is not a conventional family, but it is a family. And Belton Platt, long absent, wants to be a good father now.