For Grayson Hendricks, 1999 was a lifetime ago.
Before the turn of the century, Hendricks said he wasn’t making the best choices with his life. Living in Edwardsville and 24 years old at the time, he admits to dabbling in drugs. He wound up getting the attention of Edwardsville police as well as the Metropolitan Enforcement Group of Southwestern Illinois.
In March 1999, Hendricks was arrested in Edwardsville and charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance. He was found with cocaine on him. That arrest led to an eventual conviction as Hendricks pleaded guilty and wound up being sentenced to two years probation as part of a plea bargain on Dec. 13, 1999.
Nearly 17 years later, those dark days of Hendricks’ life were wiped out by one swipe of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s pen. In late November, Rauner agreed to grant Hendricks clemency and expunged the felony charge from Hendricks’ permanent record. Rauner’s action ended a decade-long process that spanned three governors. Of the more than 2,000 clemency petitions Rauner has considered since taking office in January 2015, Hendricks’ case is one of only 80 that he has signed off on.
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“I’m lucky and blessed,” Hendricks said. “He’s given me this opportunity, and I’m damn sure not going to squander it.”
Making a change after troubled times
Hendricks remembers being surprised at how he was treated by law enforcement at the time of his arrest. He didn’t have any previous felony convictions on his record. A look at Madison County Circuit Clerk records show nothing more than traffic ticket convictions on his record before that March 1999 arrest.
“For some odd reason, they thought I was a big, major kingpin,” Hendricks said. “One Edwardsville police officer, who went above and beyond, wanted to make it his life project to put me behind bars for the rest of my life. From that day forward, I set a path of doing things right.”
Hendricks had no problems on probation and was successfully discharged from probation in October 2001.
Even though he wasn’t in any more trouble with the law, Hendricks felt like he was still under a microscope and eventually left Edwardsville in 2005 and moved to Chicago. When he arrived in Chicago, he enrolled in the Illinois Institute of Art and earned an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts. He has worked as a chef for more than a decade.
Each time he applied for a job, though, Hendricks said he was up front with his employers. He told them about the felony conviction, something that haunted him as he got older.
“Being a convicted felon is the ultimate black mark,” Hendricks said. “Telling them you been convicted for selling drugs, it’s an uphill battle. I’ve had to fight for everything that I’ve got.
“Those people who have given me jobs have had a lot of faith in me. I was straight forward and honest to let them know they had nothing to fear.”
Clearing his name
Hendricks’ job as a chef allowed him to mingle with some of the state’s rich and powerful. He said he has spoken with Rauner, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and former governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn about his case. Hendricks said Quinn was especially supportive and encouraged him to seek clemency.
Getting his record cleared is much easier said than done. The fact Rauner granted his clemency request is a minor miracle. Only 3 percent of the clemency cases Rauner has considered have been approved.
According to the Associated Press, Rauner inherited a large number of clemency requests, a mountain that started to build during the Blagojevich administration. Quinn, the AP reported, granted more than a third of the 5,000 clemency requests he ruled on during his six-year tenure.
“I think our criminal justice system hasn’t served our residents well, and we’re trying to change it,” Rauner said on Monday. “(Clemency) is an extraordinary measure, not something that’s granted lightly. But each request should be respected and treated on a timely basis.”
Jason Sweat, who serves as chief legal counsel for the State of Illinois Prisoner Review Board, said Hendricks’ case was one of the first ones considered by Rauner after he took office in January 2015. Sweat said Hendricks filed his paperwork in April 2015. Hendricks said he started the clemency process as early as 2006 but he said he would get letters from the board saying more information was needed before they could consider his case.
Eventually, Hendricks had all of his “i’s” dotted and his “t’s” crossed so that his request could be reviewed. He got the result he was hoping for, something that made his family happy.
“My mom (Phyllis Hendricks) cried almost as hard as I did when we heard the news,” Grayson Hendricks said.
Unfortunately, Hendricks’ father, Carl, was not able to share in the joy. Carl Hendricks, who operated North End Towing in East St. Louis for many years, died in 2000.
“I feel great,” Grayson Hendricks said. “It shows that everything that I’ve done since that mistake was right. Regardless of what people may think of me then and now, I knew once I started on the path to set things right, it would all work out. It just took a little longer than I thought it was going to take.”