This story was originally published April 24, 2014 in the Charleston Daily Mail.
On Aug. 6, 2006, Larry “Ace” Boggess walked into the McCloud Family Pharmacy in Lavalette dressed in a long black hood and cape, intending to steal some Oxycontin.
He was armed with a pair of steak knives and a crowbar, although he now says he never intended to use them.
Nevertheless, Boggess soon found himself in a scuffle with pharmacist Jim McCloud.
According to media reports at the time, Boggess cut McCloud several times during the fight. A state policeman was nearby when the 911 call came through and was able to subdue Boggess and take him to the Western Regional Jail.
Boggess had never been arrested before. Never even had a speeding ticket. Now, he was fingerprinted. He had a mugshot. He was headed into the state correctional system.
He was a law school graduate and a widely published poet. But Boggess also was a drug addict, and had been for years.
Boggess plead guilty to first degree robbery and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, although he would only serve five.
It saved his life. Boggess got clean and stayed that way.
Prison also saved his writing.
Once convinced he couldn’t write without a painkiller coursing through his veins, Boggess eventually proved he did not need opiates to make good art. He produced an entire volume of poetry, “The Prisoners,” during his time behind bars.
The book was released in February and this Friday, Boggess will return to Taylor Books for his first Charleston reading in nearly a decade.
Boggess never considered himself a poet. From the time he was a child, he wanted to write novels.
Poetry was just a quick way of committing ideas to paper.
“It’s faster when you’re getting started,” he said.
After graduating from George Washington High School in 1989, Boggess headed to Marshall University, where he studied journalism. He got a job with the Herald Dispatch, and found writing poetry was also a good way to kill time between stories.
The newspaper industry didn’t seem like a good fit, however, so he moved to Morgantown and enrolled in West Virginia University’s College of Law.
At the same time, his dependence on prescription painkillers was steadily increasing, even though those closest to him never knew.
Boggess says he avoided even ibuprofen and aspirin as a young man, but got his first taste of the painkiller Loratab following a wisdom teeth extraction at age 19.
“It was like a bomb went off in my head,” he said. “It erases everything, or at least you think it does.”
He dabbled with painkiller for the next several years, but his habit took a turn for the worse in his last year of law school at West Virginia University.
That’s when he discovered Oxycontin.
Boggess found a bottle of the high-powered opiates while rifling through his deceased grandmother’s medicine cabinet.
The high was the same as with other drugs, he found, but Oxy’s packed a bigger punch. One Oxycontin felt like a hundred Percocet.
He was soon hooked on the drug but, realizing he had a problem, Boggess kicked his habit cold turkey during finals week of his last semester of law school. But the sobriety would not last long.
Boggess wound up back in Huntington after law school. He never took the bar exam (“I knew I would never make it as a lawyer,” he says) but paid the bills with freelance writing jobs and editing projects, as well as a few fellowships he received from the state.
He had completed 10 novels by this time, but although he was having poems published “left and right,” Boggess still could not find a publisher interested in his fiction.
“I’d probably put 15 years of my life at that point into writing and they wouldn’t sell,” he said.
Boggess was rudderless and depressed. He also became convinced he needed drugs to write.
He had never purchased pills before — he usually got his fix by stealing family members’ prescriptions — but friends in Huntington introduced Boggess to drug deals with a steady supply of prescription painkillers.
Now, Boggess’s ability to get drugs was only limited by his financial resources.
His addiction was worse than ever and, over the next eight years, would destroy his entire life.
Boggess said the hardest part of addiction was not being high or sober, but the state in between.
“Picture the worst flu you’ve ever had. The shakes, the fever, the twitches, things you can’t even put into words…and multiply that by 100.”
The sickness is made worse, Boggess said, because addicts know they only need one pill to make the sickness go away. So they take the drug and enjoy the temporary relief, only to start the process all over again.
“You keep going through this day after day and eventually your mind just goes.”
His friends were aware he had a drug problem, although they underestimated how severe it was. His family, however, had no idea about his addiction.
“Never underestimate a junkie’s sense of control,” he said.
Boggess drove to Wayne County every day to visit his drug dealer, scrounging up money where he could to feed his habit. And every day, he drove by the same pharmacies.
“Eventually I started wondering, would it be easier to go in there and just get the drug?”
In June 2006, he walked into a Rite-Aid in Lavalette with a long kitchen knife. He left with “a lot” of Oxycontin.
“I don’t think I ever counted them. By that point I was out of my head. I was just taking pills left and right.”
Boggess somehow got away with the robbery and, emboldened, decided to try again.
“I was completely insane. I had no idea what I was doing for the most part.”
That’s when Boggess made his failed robbery attempt at the McCloud Family Pharmacy and found himself facing his first night in jail.
He chronicled the experience in his poem “What Was Your First Day of Incarceration Like?”
“In a medical isolation cell, I paced and cursed and purged, bent over the steel john as if I lost something: a wedding band or matched set of dreams. Left alone, buried alive.”
He recalls laying face down on the concrete floor, peeking through a crack underneath the door.
“Praying any human foot would pass: an angel of mercy, invisible friend, a stranger’s voice in the wilderness of night,” he wrote.
Boggess spent a month and a half in jail before he was released on bond. He then spent the next six months in a rehabilitation program, returning home clean and sober.
He plead guilty to first degree robbery in July 2007. Four months later, a judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison.
He was immediately taken back to the Western Regional Jail, where he waited for six months until being transferred to the Martinsburg Correctional Center in March 2008 for classification.
“Same spare walls, spiritless meals, but new clothes and a new view,” he wrote in the poem “Prison View.”
Boggess spent the majority of his time as an inmate at the Stevens Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in Welch.
“It was complete misery but at the same time it was a whole world I’ve never seen before,” he said.
He was scared but fascinated. Boggess said the environment was much less ruthless or violent than he’d expected.
“Prison here isn’t like what you see on TV,” he said. “They’re all just people. A lot of them are screwed up. I was screwed up. But a lot of them are just overly rambunctious children.”
He began pouring all his experiences onto the page.
“I’ve always considered myself a kind of journalist-poet. I try to describe what I see,” he said.
The poems in “The Prisoners” capture everything from prison chefs (“they could cook the delight from a birthday cake”) to the day room, where inmates watch a movie about prison.
“Not the classic where Tim Robbins escapes, or Clint Eastwood escapes, or Tom Hanks puts the innocent man to death. Instead it’s Eddie Murphy who can’t escape Martin Lawrence.”
There is humor in the book, but there is also despair.
In the book’s title poem, Boggess writes the prisoners “have seen too much, smudged the flush from embers of memory’s freedom, covered them up with ash.”
He asks “what does it mean to hope? To want more than this? To dream of the outside, then forget?”
Boggess even dedicates a poem to McCloud, asking for his forgiveness in the poem “Letter to My Victim.”
“I’m deeply sorry in you I saw nothing human, just a door through which hell is exited…If I could, I’d take back the knife, return the blood and fix your wounds,” he writes.
Boggess had 75 poems published in 50 different magazines while he was behind bars.
He compiled them into the book that would later become “The Prisoners” and, on the day he was released on parole in December 2012, received an acceptance letter from Brick Road Poetry Press in Columbus, Ga.
The publisher released “The Prisoners” in February of this year, just as Boggess was finishing up his parole.
Boggess has been sober for nearly eight years now, but his body still craves the drugs that ruined his life and took away his freedom.
“The desire’s always there. Once you’re an addict, it never goes away.”
He stays clean because he realizes the consequences of using drugs again.
“I destroyed my whole life and probably a few other peoples’ as well,” he said. “I wouldn’t take pills if you threw them at me and ran away.”
He also has no desire to return to prison. Boggess is enjoying his freedom, even if it sometimes overwhelms him.
“The best thing about being free is there are so many choices. But the worst thing about being free is there are so many choices,” he said.
Behind bars, he never had to think about what to eat, what to drink or what to wear. Now, even choosing a utensil can be a profound experience.
“You spend five years eating with a rubber spoon…when you’re grateful for a fork, imagine what the bigger things do to you,” he said. “It’s fascinating. Coming back out is a whole new experience, too. I’m seeing everything I saw before, but it’s all different now.”
It hasn’t been easy. Boggess cannot find work, even though he has two degrees and has filled out 50 job applications in the last year.
He is publishing poems and short stories, but the novels still are not selling.
But instead of turning to drugs, Boggess is channeling everything into his writing. He is finishing another volume of poetry inspired by his release from prison.
“Even when things are bad I feel okay with it,” he said. “Really for the first time in my life everything is good. Even when it’s not.”
Ace Boggess will be at Taylor Books on Capitol St. this Friday at 6 p.m. to sign copies of his book “The Prisoners.” He also will read some of his poems beginning about 7 p.m.