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Lessons from a life of crime

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Victor Woods book recounts his life from a troubled youth to a responsible adult.

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During his youth, Victor Woods' life easily could have resembled that of the Huxtable children in the former television series, The Cosby Show.

His was one of the first African-American families to move into the affluent Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights in the 1970s. Mr. Woods' parents were graduates of two prestigious historically black colleges - Morehouse and Spelman. His father was a Fortune 500 executive, and his grandfather was a prominent Baptist minister.

But growing up in an upper-middle-class household did not guarantee that Mr. Woods would become an upstanding citizen.

He opted for a life of crime, beginning by running away from home, hanging with the wrong crowd, and stealing bicycles. By age 16 he had masterminded elaborate crimes, often communicating with fellow criminals via hand-held radios to pull off the jobs.

"In high school, I had robbed the neighborhood general food store with a machine gun replica, and someone called my parents and told them that the grocery store had been robbed. Little did they know it was me, while I was in my comfortable home at the kitchen table saying, 'Pass the syrup.'

"By the time I was 19, I was sent to prison," said Mr. Woods, now an empowerment speaker who addresses audiences about his journey from prison to enlightenment.

Mr. Woods, 41, author of the memoir A Breed Apart: A Journey to Redemption (Atria, 2005), is scheduled to speak from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday in the University of Toledo's Nitschke Hall Auditorium.

He also is scheduled to speak at 10:15 a.m. Sunday during a public service at New Life Church of God in Christ, 1215 Oakwood Ave.

Mr. Woods said a number of fac- tors contributed to his troubled youth: hyperactivity, for which he was medicated; an attraction to gangster films such as Scarface and The Godfather, and what he describes as his most trying adjustment - fitting in as a black male in an all-white school and neighborhood.

"My parents went through the '60s [Civil Rights] movement, and went to prestigious black colleges, and they fought for their kids to have equality, which meant getting tennis lessons and joining elitist organizations. "They would say, 'We worked hard to be out here.' I was a part of all of that, and I had been indoctrinated. I was so tired of being the mascot in an all-white school and children can be cruel, so I was always fighting," said Mr. Woods, a single father of two daughters, Amanda, 17, who lives with him, and Alexis, 16, who lives with her mother.

His first encounter with the justice system was entering state prison, which he says was a training ground for white-collar criminals.

"I was not rehabilitated," he recalled. "Instead, I learned about crime and absorbed it like a sponge."

Upon his release, he said he organized a $40 million illegal credit-card operation that operated successfully for years, until cohorts exposed his scheme for their own reduced sentences. After being arrested for this scheme in his 20s, he went to prison for a second time at the federal level, where he spent the next six years.

Finally he decided to focus on more positive pursuits.

"I was very rebellious in prison and went into the hole [solitary confinement] several times. I stayed in the hole for six months and got sick and developed an infection in my eye and almost went blind; it was there that I got my internal vision and had a personal epiphany and knew that God had a better plan for my life," said Mr. Woods, who credits the teachings of his minister grandfather for helping to turn his life around.

Although he speaks to people of all races, he said he is especially concerned with the plight and future of young African-American men. As a result, Mr. Woods regularly visits juvenile-detention centers and jails in the Chicago area to urge black males to turn their lives around. He commented on the psyche of many of the young men who participated in the Oct. 15 riot in Toledo.

"They are frustrated for the lack of health care, the lack of jobs, the lack of ownership, and the final straw was the Nazis in their own neighborhood. Usually when you are in your right mind and feel good about yourself and your circumstances, nine times out of 10, you would not react that way," said Mr. Woods. "What happened [in Toledo] was deeper than just being out of control and rioting for the fun of it."

Author and speaker Victor Woods is scheduled to give a motivational address from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the University of Toledo's Nitschke Hall Auditorium. The appearance is presented by UT's Office of EXCELlence (Upward Bound, Student Support Services, Toledo Excel, and Gear Up-Prep/Tech). Reservations are required. Information: Upward Bound at 419-530-3813. Mr. Woods will also speak at 10:15 a.m. Sunday during a public service at New Life Church of God in Christ, 1215 Oakwood Ave. Information: 419-242-3278.

Contact Rhonda B. Sewell at: rsewell@theblade.com

or 419-724-6101.

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