The first time they met, Joe Whitfield was selling crack on Felix Street and Dan Riccio was a cop.
It didn’t look like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
This was Dec. 12, 1993. Riccio and another Charleston police officer had Whitfield under surveillance from a burned-out, abandoned house across the street. After they saw him move a few rocks, they went in for the bust.
Whitfield is a big guy, so Riccio tried a diversion. He and the other officer ran into the street as if they were chasing someone else, then Riccio tried to slap the cuffs on Whitfield before he realized what was happening.
Riccio got tagged a couple of times and Whitfield wound up in the hospital, nursing a bruised wrist from the cuffs and charged with selling drugs and assaulting a police officer.
The second time they met was this summer — when Riccio hired Whitfield.
In the intervening quarter-century, both men had seen their lives change tremendously.
Riccio had retired from the force and is now director of Charleston’s Department of Livability and Tourism. Whitfield had worked for a catering company, done some modeling and appeared as an extra on three seasons of the television series “Army Wives.”
He also had just gotten out of prison.
Perhaps most importantly, Whitfield was a new graduate of Turning Leaf, the North Charleston nonprofit that helps recently released felons reintegrate themselves into society and the workforce. The program’s success rate has attracted national attention, and other cities now ask Amy Barch, Turning Leaf’s founder, to help them reduce recidivism.
“It’s a great place,” Whitfield says. “I heard about it in prison, got a letter from them.”
Whitfield didn’t think he was the type to go through Turning Leaf’s cognitive behavioral therapy program, but he stuck with it — and found the center’s methods work. The center first gave him a job in the Turning Leaf print shop, which provided a steady check.
It was exactly the break he needed.
“Back when I was dealing, I was trying to get out,” Whitfield says. “But I didn’t get out fast enough.”
One of the attractions of Turning Leaf is that the staff helps its people find jobs, which Whitfield notes is not exactly easy for felons. But by the time he graduated from the course, Whitfield had interviews lined up with MUSC and the city.
And that’s how these two men reunited. Riccio saw Whitfield’s name on a list of applicants, recognized it ... and called him in for an interview.
“The thing that struck me was, he dealt drugs but he always had another job to support his family,” Riccio says. “He just couldn’t make ends meet. I just felt like he needed to have the opportunity.”
Whitfield concedes he was initially nervous about the interview, given his history with Riccio. But neither held a grudge.
“There are no hard feelings,” Whitfield says. “He was just doing his job.”
Now Whitfield, who also works at a downtown restaurant, helps keeps Charleston clean — and livable. As part of Riccio’s staff, Whitfield erases errant graffiti, and picks up abandoned bikes and trash left around Charleston. He’s also started doing some office work.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been more proud of any student here,” says Justin Evans, a case manager at Turning Leaf. “He’s out there showing everyone that he’s going to do it different now.”
Whitfield says Turning Leaf helped him a lot, and so did Riccio. But Whitfield also helped himself, and that’s the point. With the assistance and training of Barch’s team, he has turned his life around. Riccio says he’s never seen anyone show more initiative in the job.
So, two guys who tussled on Felix Street 25 years ago now work together, and it’s a testament to the efforts of Turning Leaf and a credit to Whitfield, for persevering, and Riccio and the city of Charleston for giving him a chance.
And it’s a pretty good story to tell around the office.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.