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A happy story of redemption - Modern Jean Valjean has day in court

By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)
March 26th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A California judge has sentenced a man who fired two shots at police officers to one year in county jail and probation; this after the man skipped bail and fled to Africa. Prosecutors had asked for a five-year sentence. However, the real story is why the sentence was so light.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Ronald Bridgeforth, 67, of Michigan finally faced justice after 42 years of hiding in plain sight. On Nov. 5, 1968, the 23-year-old Bridgeforth allegedly used a stolen credit card to buy $29 worth of toys and clothing. When police confronted him, he opened fire, putting two bullets into a police car. Police returned fire, wounding him in the foot. 

Bridgeforth was arrested, nobody else was injured in the shootout. 

Facing California's indeterminate sentencing laws, Bridgeforth could have spent five years to life in prison, but he managed to post bail and immediately fled to Africa where he had no family or acquaintances. 

After a year overseas, Bridgeforth returned to the US and assumed an identity as Cole Lee Jordan. To keep his identity safe, Bridgeforth was compelled to break ties with his mother. He also committed no more crimes. 

Settling in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife, Bridgeforth took a job as a janitor at a local community college in 1978. While he worked, he took classes and earned his degree in general studies from Wayne State University in 1986. He later earned a master's degree in counseling from Eastern Michigan in 1993. 

After becoming a licensed counselor, Bridgeforth joined the faculty of Washtenaw Community College in 1998 and worked there as a student advisor until 2011. 

However, conscience caught up with Bridgeforth and he decided that if he wanted to be someone that his family and community could be proud of, he would have to come clean. 

Bridgeforth turned himself in to police after 42 years on the run. Bridgeforth had already pled no contest to his crime back in 1968, so all that was required was his sentencing. 

One police officer who was on the scene that day in 1968 was present at the hearing. Police Lt. George Baptista said, "I've encountered a lot of violent people, but in my experience, Mr. Bridgeforth was the most violent. He is the only one who tried to kill me."

Baptista quit the police department after the shootout fearing his son could grow up without a father. 

The endangerment of lives prompted prosecutors to ask for a five-year sentence. 

Judge Lisa Novak disagreed. Several people came forward to tell what a difference Bridgeforth made in their lives. A number said they would not be where they were had they not met Bridgeforth as their counselor. 

Bridgeforth also expressed genuine remorse at his actions. He apologized to the police officers and explained that he was in court to do what was right. While he did not mention it, it was understood by all that with the investigation long forgotten, Bridgeforth could have easily lived the rest of his life without taking responsibility or apologizing for his misdeed. He did not have to be there to face the justice he still deserved. 

Before sentencing, he told the court, "I have worked tirelessly to remake myself into someone that my family and my community could be proud of. Today brings me closer to that goal." 

Citing Bridgeforth's remorse and rehabilitation, Novak sentenced Bridgeforth to one year in jail with probation. Novak emphasized that Bridgeforth was not a danger to society. 

Those who do wrong cannot erase or diminish the magnitude of their offense. However, they can outweigh it by living the rest of their life dedicated to doing good. Bridgeforth has done so, and thereby outweighed the offense he committed some 42 years ago. 

Bridgeforth's example is proof that redemption is possible, but it takes honesty, responsibility, and compassion. A formula that everyone would do well to learn.

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