SLO man's road to a pardon: 'I didn't get arrested; I got rescued'

mfountain@thetribunenews.comMay 6, 2014 

Before Clark Guest could help struggling drug offenders confront their addictions, he had to first confront his own.

Guest, 53, whose drinking once landed him in a Mexican jail, today works as the coordinator of the San Luis Obispo County Drug and Alcohol Services Adult Drug Court Program, a comprehensive treatment program for nonviolent defendants that allows them a second chance rather than incarceration.

He knows the program well. It saved his life, he said.

On April 18 — Good Friday — Guest was among 63 California residents pardoned by the Governor’s Office for their past crimes. He spent 60 days in jail and five years on probation for his role in a 1997 burglary, a crime he said he committed to feed his past addiction to methamphetamines.

In his certificate of pardon, Gov. Jerry Brown noted that since Guest’s release from custody he’s “lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character and conducted himself as a law-abiding citizen.”

But Guest says that wasn’t always the case.

Road to ruin

Tall, athletic and charismatic, Guest was a star on his Fullerton junior college basketball team. But he also began experimenting with alcohol, marijuana and, eventually, cocaine.

“I developed two lives,” Guest recalled — the entitled star athlete, and the guy buying small amounts of cocaine and doing drug runs for larger suppliers around Los Angeles. “Pretty soon I found myself over my head with coke dealers.”

Guest was still able to pull it together during the school week, however, and by 1981, he was headed to San Luis Obispo with a full scholarship to attend Cal Poly.

But the booze and drug use continued.

On a fateful spring break trip to Mexico, Guest’s best friend stumbled off a steep cliff after a night of heavy drinking. Mexican authorities threw Guest and his other companions in jail on murder charges. There, he was beaten, he said.

“I never thought I would make it home,” he said. But he did, thanks to a friend’s family member making a significant payment to Mexican officials, Guest said.

Years later, Guest’s treatment counselor would point to this episode as the most significant life event that accelerated the direction his life was headed.

Back in San Luis Obispo, Guest said, he neglected his studies and “went off the deep end,” eventually dropping out of school. He landed a job as a firefighter at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where he discovered meth.

“That job meant everything to me, but not enough to get me to stop using,” said Guest, who began committing small crimes to feed his habit.

At an Arroyo Grande bank in 1996, he was arrested after he attempted to forge documents to open an account in someone else’s name and cash a check. A search of his apartment led to the discovery of stolen property.

Facing 10 felony charges and up to 30 years behind bars, Guest pleaded guilty to two felony burglary and forgery charges and was sentenced to a year in San Luis Obispo County Jail.

He served six months and finally got clean and sober through his treatment at Adult Drug Court. He remembers the date — Dec. 1, 1999.

“As it turns out, I didn’t get arrested. I got rescued,” Guest said.

He completed Drug Court in 2001 and landed a job in construction before a back injury led him to a vocational counselor for career advice. She recognized Guest’s unique background and suggested taking an online counseling course. By summer 2002, Guest was volunteering at Mental Health Systems Inc., the county’s former contracted provider of Adult Drug Court services, doing much of the grunt work, including administering drug tests.

By fall, Guest had enrolled at Allan Hancock College, where he earned his certification as a drug and alcohol treatment counselor and later his associate’s in science degree in human services, while the county ramped up his volunteer workload to 30 hours a week. By January 2003, Guest was hired on full-time.

“He is just such a likeable person that clients gravitate toward him, and he gives people hope in the very beginning (of their treatment) when it’s most important,” said Dr. Star Graber, who hired Guest. “He’s a natural leader.”

Graber is the division manager at the department of drug and alcohol services and continues to supervise Guest’s work on the Drug Court. She said she recognized early on his potential to be an exceptional counselor.

Today, Guest is working toward a master’s degree to one day practice family and marriage therapy. He expects to receive it in August 2015.

Full circle

But despite all his work and rehabilitation, Guest remained a convicted felon.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted this pardon so badly,” Guest said, adding that the California Board of Behavior Sciences, which issues licenses to therapists, is tough on applicants with a criminal record. “Once you have a felony on your record, that follows you around forever,” Guest said.

He spent the last six years through two state administrations pursuing the pardon.

“It’s about moving on with my life and moving forward,” Guest said. “It helps with everything.”

California residents convicted of a crime can apply for a pardon from the Governor’s Office once an applicant has completed probation or parole without any further criminal convictions and received a Certificate of Rehabilitation from the court. Although any offender can apply, governors historically grant very few pardons.

Executive clemency does not erase the record of conviction, but it does restore other rights. A pardoned person may serve on a jury and own a gun (for nonviolent offenders). A pardon also allows a felon to seek a job as a county probation officer or state parole agent and relieves certain sex offenders of their requirements to register.

In working toward vindication, Guest amassed an impressive collection of letters of recommendation — including support from state Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and the deputy district attorney who originally prosecuted him.

In one letter of support, San Luis Obispo-based defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu called Guest “the secular Saint Augustine of San Luis Obispo.”

“I think that’s absolutely appropriate. In terms of saving people, I don’t know anyone more dedicated to helping people in the community with (addiction),” Funke-Bilu later said. “He is a remarkable individual.”

Kirk Wilson prosecuted Guest for the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office in the late 1990s. Wilson, now retired, would see Guest in court throughout the years of Guest’s treatment and also sent a letter to the governor — the only pardon he’s ever supported in his career.

“Clark Guest is a real success story. He was in huge trouble because of drugs, and he turned his life around,” Wilson said. “He’s the first person I’ve known in 38 years as a prosecutor to receive a pardon, and he absolutely deserves it.”

Guest has not yet received his official certificate of pardon in the mail, but he expects to be hanging it on his office wall any day.

“Everything’s come full circle for me,” Guest said. “It’s been an amazing ride.”

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