Page 4 of 5   <       >

The Great Escape

The identity of the person who put the crack cocaine in the garage is unclear, but Butler is adamant that it wasn't him. Geller knew of Butler's criminal past but was unaware that he was a promising athlete. He confronted Butler after finding the drugs, and Butler denied knowing anything about them. With his burgeoning basketball career possibly in jeopardy, he told Geller, "I don't need this now."

Since Butler was the only person at home during the raid, Geller could have arrested him by citing "constructive possession," which makes the person in a home liable for what is inside. If convicted, Butler could have received at least 10 years in prison, maybe more given his prior record, Geller said. "It would've been bad for me, period," Butler said.

Butler's mother arrived while the officers were deliberating what to do with him, shocked to find police in her home after a trip to get flu medicine and soup for her son. Geller recalls her pulling him aside and begging him: "I promise you, if you give Caron a chance on this, you will never look back. You will never have to worry about him."

A very pragmatic man, Geller said he prides himself on a meticulous approach to his job. He believes police work is much easier when you treat people correctly. "I'm not saying that Caron might not have been involved in something at that point, but in my gut, I was pretty confident the dope wasn't his. I had done my homework."

Geller's supervisor told him that he had enough for an arrest, but left the final decision up to Geller.

"If this had been a situation where I knew going in that Caron was the guy selling the dope -- that he was the responsible party -- I'm not going to lie to you, he would've been escorted out of that house," Geller said.

He decided to let Butler go.

"I thought it was the right thing to do -- to see him go on the right path," Geller said.

But Geller and his supervisor left Butler with a warning. "They told me, 'If you get in trouble again, anything to do with narcotics again, you're taking this case, too,' " Butler recalled. "I was like, 'You don't have to worry about that.' "

* * *

Discovering the Game

Butler had always dabbled in basketball, but he developed a hunger for the sport during his months at Ethan Allen, where he played pickup games to win Little Debbie snack cakes and frosted doughnuts. And he soon became a standout at Washington Park High School.

Jameel Ghuari, director of the George Bray Community Center, persuaded Butler to play for his Amateur Athletic Union team. Ghuari, a community activist, coached Butler for three summers and later served as his mentor. He spent countless hours trying to convince Butler that basketball could be his means to a better life. It was a hard sell, Ghuari said. "He was still very influenced by his environment and those individuals who he hung around with," he said. "His mentality was still in the street."

<             4        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company