It took nearly 37 years from the time Richard Sipe first proposed to Juli Cummings for the couple to settle down together in Seattle.
Choices, mostly bad ones he made, kept them apart, and so did an overzealous justice system. His determination to be a better person, and her intense drive to be with the man she loves brought them together again.
Before she was done, Sipe had supporters around the world calling for his release. Hundreds of them, including lawyers, professors and business owners, wrote to officials on his behalf.
In 2002 Sipe was sentenced to more than 70 years in prison in Oklahoma, 60 years for aggravated manufacture of methamphetamine and 10 for possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. “You can murder somebody and not get 71 years,” Cummings said. They both agree he did wrong, but the sentence was out of proportion for a first offense.
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The war on drugs has filled prisons with people serving unreasonably long sentences, eaten away at state budgets and substituted life behind bars for rehabilitation for nonviolent, addicted people, mostly poor men and women.
Sipe was fortunate to have an advocate who would pour years of her life into freeing him, but justice shouldn’t have to rely on chance or require unreasonable sacrifice. Sipe served 10 years before he and Cummings got his sentences commuted.
I met Cummings at a Rainier Chamber of Commerce meeting (she has a nontoxic cleaning business), and she invited me to meet Sipe at their home in Southeast Seattle and hear their story.
They met in Yelm in 1976. Sipe was 17 and had just come from Indiana to stay with his older sister because of problems with his stepfather. Cummings was 16 and baby-sitting for Sipe’s sister. “We fell in love immediately,” she said.
Sipe went to Oklahoma for a construction job. He proposed a few months after, but their plans to reunite didn’t work out and they lost touch.
Sipe got good enough to start his own construction crew, but running a business exhausted him so he turned to meth to help him cope, and he became addicted.
On Nov. 15, 2002, police raided the home he shared with his drug-addicted girlfriend. They found Sipe hiding in a nearby building that housed the meth lab he’d started with a guy he knew.
Police reports said there were two guns in the bedroom of the house, but he wasn’t in the house.
In 2007, Cummings ran into Sipe’s sister, who said he was in prison and gave her the number. They spoke for the first time in 30 years, the spark reignited, and Cummings dedicated herself to freeing Sipe. “He asked me to marry him,” she said, “and I said the answer was the same.”
She was a glass artist and art teacher, but she put that on hold and started a cleaning business, which gave her a more flexible schedule while she spent her time researching, writing letters and petitions, networking with other families of prisoners.
She accumulated crates full of documents. She estimates she spent $70,000 on trips to Oklahoma, lawyer fees, better food for Sipe.
She’d tried life with other men and even gotten married while they were apart, but none of them worked out. “Ric is the only man for me,” she said.
They worked for an appeal in the courts without luck, then began petitioning the parole board.
In 2010 her story became an episode of the Discovery series “Prison Wives,” and gained their fight broader attention. She persisted even when Sipe despaired.
Sipe earned his GED in prison and high praise from his teacher, who wrote to the parole board that Sipe was a joy to have in class. He was a model prisoner with no violations and he mentored other prisoners.
Every morning, Cummings awoke to a phone call from Sipe. She recorded every one and listened to them while she cleaned houses during the day. She bought a pickup for him which she parked in her driveway for six years waiting for his release, and she visited twice a year.
There are too many twists and turns to recount here, but the drug sentence was commuted in 2011 and the gun sentence was commuted last year.
He received a year of probation for failure to affix a stamp to a controlled substance. Cummings flew down in October and brought him home to her brightly colored, art-covered home.
Sipe still faces $50,000 in fines, and until that is resolved he doesn’t want to get married and put her home in jeopardy. But she still calls him her husband and she’s helping him slowly adjust to life on the outside.
They are committed to supporting efforts to change the way nonviolent drug offenders are treated by the justice system. They say Sipe was a hardworking man who developed a drug addiction and who needed rehab, not prison.
There are too many like him still behind bars.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org