“I was a real piece of crap,” Kent told The Washington Post. “I regret a lot of stuff that I did. But I can’t take it back, and I’m glad because it made me who I am today.”
Kent, 38, said he is now having his neo-Nazi tattoos covered up after making the decision to leave a life of hate behind him.
That decision, he first told ABC News, grew slowly out of a surprising friendship with his probation officer — a black woman.
“I told her if it wasn’t for her, I’d still be deep into this stuff,” he said.
Tiffany Whittier, a probation officer in Pinal County, Ariz., was assigned to handle Kent’s case a decade ago.
Kent, who had served time on drug and weapons charges, was released from prison in 2006; about a year later, his probation case was transferred to Whittier.
Until then, he said, his probation officers had always visited him in pairs.
Then Whittier got his file — which included pictures of his tattoos — and she visited him at his house alone.
That earned her instant respect from Kent, who said he was emotionally moved by her boldness — by the fact that she didn’t fear him or what he represented.
“She showed up, and I lost it,” he said.
His house was cluttered with Nazi gear — including a decal reading “extreme hatred” over an image of Adolf Hitler, with a swastika and Nazi Germany’s iron cross. There were also German war flags.
“She asked me why,” Kent said. “I told her, ‘This is me — take it or leave it.’ ”
Whittier said it was not her job to judge Kent. She was simply there to make sure he did not violate his probation and wind up back in prison.
Still, she did not stay silent.
One Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Kent asked Whittier: “Why are you working on James Earl Ray Day?” She sternly told him his remarks were inappropriate.
Another time, she half-jokingly told Kent that he should replace his Nazi symbols with smiley faces — and he did it. His nickname was Smiley, he explained, and it “made a lot of sense.” So he put posters of smiley faces where racism had once been on display.
As time went on, Kent said he started leaning on Whittier for support.
When his first child was born.
When he and his girlfriend broke up — then got back together, eventually marrying.
And then when they divorced.
In the middle of it all, in 2010, Kent completed his probation.
And, Whittier said, their professional relationship started to develop into an “ironic” friendship.
As his life progressed, he said, so, too, did his views about race.
“Michael did the work,” Whittier said. But, she said, she is glad that she had “an impact on him.”
Kent said it was the respect that Whittier showed that made him want to take down the Nazi symbols. He did so out of respect for her, he said.
His neo-Nazi views, he said, evolved from racial encounters growing up in a mostly black neighborhood in Erie, Pa. He was bullied by black children, he said, and his mother was assaulted by a black man.
He said a man broke into her window and climbed on top of her, but she drew a gun and started shooting at him.
Kent was only 6 or 7 at the time, he said. He started to see black people in a negative way, and his hatred for them “started growing stronger and stronger and stronger” until he became a full-fledged “skinhead.”
In the 1990s, he started to join demonstrations, including a neo-Nazi rally in Arizona to support the state’s controversial immigration bill, SB 1070.
He said he “destroyed people’s lives” — both by recruiting others into his racist lifestyle, and by “putting boots to people” of other races.
Over the years, Kent found himself in and out of prison.
He said he doesn’t even remember why he went to jail the first time, when he was a young teen; but records show that in the early 2000s, he was put in prison for the first time for dangerous drug violations, theft, trafficking stolen property and promoting prison contraband — a charge he said stemmed from a stint in county jail in the late 1990s, when he brought drugs into the correctional system.
He was later imprisoned on a weapons charge. Kent said he had attempted suicide with a gun — which, as a felon, he was not permitted to have in his possession.
It was in prison, Kent said, that he got his Nazi tattoos; prisoners melted down chess pieces, hair grease and Styrofoam cups, mixed the soot with soap, and then injected it with sharp guitar strings.
But eventually, Kent said, those symbols — and that lifestyle — were in his past, and he wanted to leave them there.
He explained to Whittier that he had started to see people differently — learning not to judge, but to accept them.
So Redemption Ink, a nonprofit whose website states that it gives free coverups to people with “marks of gangs, prejudice, and hate in the form of a tattoo,” connected Kent with a tattoo shop in Colorado, where he now lives.
“We called him and said, ‘We’d like to be the next step in your journey,’” David Brown, co-owner of Fallen Heroes Tattoo in Colorado Springs, told The Post. “Michael was truly committed to this deal.”
Kent has had some sessions and still has more to go — but, Brown said, he is on his way to closing “this chapter in his life.”
Now, Kent said, he lives alone in Colorado, where he works 60 to 80 hours a week on a chicken farm — doing maintenance, managing heavy equipment and even making the feed for the chickens.
He said it’s “hectic,” but he enjoys it.
And Kent said he owes it all to a black probation officer who gave him a chance.
“Because of her,” Kent said, “I am the man I am.”
This story has been updated.