President Obama commutes sentence of St. Petersburg man

The Obama administration has launched an effort to commute the sentences of hundreds, possibly thousands, of federal prison inmates incarcerated for narcotics violations. 

63-year-old Roy Larry Lee of St. Petersburg is one of the first.

"He called us, crying. I thought something was wrong but it was tears of joy, he was happy, so everybody was crying," said Kashia T., whose last name was withheld by request. "He's happy, I'm happy, our family is happy, we just happy," she said, adding that she's also thankful."God is good," she said.

Kashia was 11-years-old when her father was arrested for his role in America's crack cocaine epidemic.  

"'Wonder Man' (Robert Lee, Roy's brother), and the Lee family introduced crack cocaine to St. Pete and the west coast," retired St. Petersburg police detective Mike Celona recounted. "They started back in the mid-80's, '83-'84."  

Robert and Roy Lee were caught in the first wave of federal drug trafficking and racketeering indictments in 1989. Their operation was taken over by another relative, Ronald "Romeo" Mathis, until another sweep in late 1991. "It was a $300,000 a week cocaine operation...that was a lot of money, a lot of dope," Celona said.  

The Lee/Mathis organization also controlled a sizable geographic area of St. Petersburg.  "They ruled by fear...there were shootings and beatings and stuff occurring in the street," Celona said.  
Pastor Wayne Thompson, a lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, confirms that. "Elderly people had to stay in homes, working people had to guard themselves in terms of how they moved in and out of their homes," he said.
In addition to the violence, crack cocaine usage was doing great damage, Thompson said. "It was cheap, it was moving fast through the community," he said.

Addictions and "crack babies" became new, unfunded challenges. "It's just all of that was happening so fast, so quick, and it just seemed like there was no stemming the tide of its presence," the pastor said.

Yet, even as local and federal authorities cracked down on crack cocaine, Thompson said the penalties might have been too harsh. "We thought in many instances that some of the sentences didn't necessarily match the deed that was done," Thompson told FOX 13 News. "It was also racial because it was here and [law enforcement] contained it in the southside, but not let it move up to the northside."

None of that was part of Kashia's pre-teen world. She had a loving mother and father and five siblings.  

"I remember him helping me with homework, taking us to the park, taking us swimming," she said. "He was a father to us in the home. Whatever he done out in the street, when he came home, it was father."  

She shared photographs her father paid to have made in prison, and noted other small expenses made as an incarcerate. "He's been the best father he can be in the situation that he is in," Kashia said. "Never missed a birthday, Mother's Day now that I have kids, Christmas."  

Lee's parents and siblings have passed away over the past quarter of a century, but his wife, five children and a lot of grandchildren and great grandchildren await his release in November. "He said he's going to give back to the community, he's done with the crime, the crime is done, it's over," Kashia said.

Retired lawman Celona hopes that's true. "That's what you hope for. I think that's part of what the prison system's supposed to be for," he said. Pastor Thompson's view encompasses the president's vision of hundreds, possibly thousands, of commuted prison sentences. "How are they going to be accepted?  What about their getting jobs? What about them being to survive in a culture that has certainly changed at a very rapid rate while they were incarcerated?" he wonders.