Wichita Peter Ninemire has never met the man he says saved his life. He hasn't thanked him, either.
"It's something I think about every day," he says, sitting in the living room of his two-bedroom bungalow in a blue-collar neighborhood in the heart of old south Wichita.
Ninemire, 49, hopes to meet the man, former President Bill Clinton, on Friday in Lawrence.
"Every morning when I wake up, I think of Bill Clinton and the courage it took for him to do what he did for me," Ninemire says. "And then I tell myself, 'I have to be courageous, too. I have to give back.'"
Ninemire, whom federal drug agents once called "one of Kansas' biggest marijuana traffickers," was one of the 17 nonviolent drug offenders whose sentences Clinton commuted Jan. 20, 2001, his last day in office.
Clinton also granted 140 record-cleansing pardons. Recipients included:
- Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros.
- Whitewater scandal figure Susan McDougal.
- Newspaper heiress and Symbionese Liberation Army member Patty Hearst.
- Former CIA Director John Deutch.
- Clinton's brother, Roger, who was convicted of drug-related charges in the 1980s.
- Billionaire fugitive Marc Rich.
- Former Kansas lieutenant governor and finance chairman of then-U.S. Sen. Bob Dole's 1988 presidential campaign Dave Owen.
Unlike most of those pardoned, Ninemire spent 10 years behind bars. He was at the federal prison near Englewood, Colo.
"I met a lot of people in the penitentiary who didn't do much to get there," he says, shaking his head. "Not me. I worked at it."
The youngest of seven brothers and sisters, Ninemire grew up on a 3,000-acre farm five miles outside of tiny Lenora, which is 20 miles south of Norton.
"I was the black sheep of my family and my extended family," he says. "My dad and I just got to the point where we couldn't get along. He was conservative and strong-willed. I was rebellious and defiant."
After college and a few years in radio, Ninemire opted for a career in marijuana production, sales and use.
'Addicted to marijuana'
"I was a 12-by-12 -- that means doing 12 joints by noon," he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "I was addicted to marijuana. It became who I was -- or I became it -- however you want to look at it."
He was busted for possession in 1981 in Ellis County. In 1986, he was caught growing marijuana in rural Franklin County.
"The first time, I got a three-year suspended sentence," he says. "The second time, I stayed out on appeal for two and a half years. I played the system."
In 1989 he was caught growing marijuana on a farm near Tuttle Creek Reservoir.
Convicted and facing a minimum sentence of 24 1/2 years in prison, Ninemire fled the state.
"I was looking at what seemed like spending the rest of my life in prison or becoming a fugitive," he says. "I chose to become a fugitive."
Prison a blessing
He was arrested two years later in Miami.
"I didn't know it then, but going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to me," Ninemire says. "It let me break my cycle of addiction, it cut me off from all the people I'd been associated with and it let me focus on myself."
The process took about five years.
"After that," he says, "you reach a point of diminishing returns. After seven years, it's not doing you any good at all," to remain in prison.
Ninemire immersed himself in the prison's self-improvement programs and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group opposed to lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes. He started the Jericho Road Youth Counseling program, which matched at-risk youths with inmates who had seen the error of their ways.
He also started a smoking-cessation program for inmates.
"My nickname was 'The President," Ninemire says, "because I was president of all these programs."
'Gives me chills'
In the waning weeks of 2000, Ninemire's public defender encouraged him to file a commutation request with the Clinton administration.
"I filled out the papers, but I didn't think it would do any good," he says. "I sort of forgot about it."
Then his first cousin, Topeka tax attorney B.J. Hickert, got involved.
"I got a Christmas letter from Pete that year and toward the end it said he'd applied to Clinton for relief," recalls Hickert, who until recently lived in Lawrence.
Hickert, 48, contacted a former law school classmate who was clerking for U.S. District Judge Richard Rogers, who had sentenced Ninemire 10 years earlier.
"I wouldn't have done that if I didn't sincerely think that Peter had turned his life around," Hickert says.
Unbeknownst to Hickert or Ninemire, Rogers had long objected to Ninemire's being subject to more time in prison than someone convicted of a violent crime.
"The judge wrote a letter to the Clinton people that, to this day, gives me chills when I read it," Hickert says.
A portion of Rogers' letter: "There is little disagreement among judges and academics that the long-term incarceration of drug offenders is ineffective as a deterrent and a huge drain on taxpayers. I was not pleased with the end result of Mr. Ninemire's case and I remained chagrined at the excessiveness of this sentence."
Dream come true
Weeks later, with neither forewarning nor ceremony, Ninemire's sentence was reduced to time served. Less than three hours later, he walked out of prison a free man.
"It was like everything I'd ever dreamed about came true all at once," Ninemire says. "I couldn't sleep for two weeks. I lost my voice. It was unbelievable."
Today, Ninemire is a full-time counselor and supervisor at Adolescent/Adult/Family Recovery, a Wichita program for at-risk children recovering from addiction. He's also a year away from getting a bachelor's degree in social work at Wichita State University.
"I'm helping other people," he says. "This is what I want to do with the rest of my life."
Friday, Ninemire will be at Allen Fieldhouse with thousands of other people, listening to the man who freed him. He doesn't know if he'll be allowed to approach Clinton, but he would like to try.
"I'd just like to thank him," Ninemire says.