The day after Thanksgiving 1977, 6-year-old Latimer Oneal Winston stood on a chair to reach the closet shelf where his father kept a rifle.
His older brother discovered the boy watching television with the loaded weapon in his lap. Moments later, an accidental gunshot killed Robert William Winston Jr., 14, and wounded Latimer Winston in ways that have yet to heal.
A standout athlete at Patrick Henry High School as a teen, Latimer Winston might have ridden a football scholarship to four years of college. Instead, he started drinking as a youngster, turned to heroin as an adult and attended prison instead of a university.
But last Tuesday, Winston, now 46, dodged a fourth term in the state prison system, thanks to reconsideration of his case by the Virginia State Parole Board, an innovative program at the Henrico County Jail, and some unlikely champions who include Henrico Sheriff Mike Wade and County Manager John Vithoulkas.
Nearly killed by an overdose early last year, Winston is now the public face of the Henrico jail’s Opiate Recovery By Intensive Tracking, or ORBIT, program, which is the brainchild of Wade and some of the county judges and is supported by Vithoulkas.
“I’m learning to live all over again,” Winston said last Wednesday in an interview at the jail. “My whole adult life has been with drugs. I haven’t been on the street free without drugs since I became an adult.
“This is the first time in 20 years I’ve been 16½ months clean. I didn’t even think I could live life without heroin. I just didn’t think that it was possible.”
Winston has told his story at schools in Henrico and New Kent counties, the Western Henrico Rotary Club, St. Paul’s Baptist Church and to the Henrico Board of Supervisors. He has also been selected to teach a portion of the county’s crisis intervention team training to police, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters.
None of that seemed possible in February 2017 when he overdosed on heroin and was charged with a new drug offense in Henrico.
According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, Winston was imprisoned from July 1991 to January 1996; from March 2003 to December 2007; and from May 2010 to April 2012. There also was an earlier incarceration that began when he was a juvenile.
His prior crimes include credit card theft, grand larceny, possession of burglary tools, attempted robbery and drug offenses. He pleaded guilty to the most recent charge, possession of a controlled substance, last July.
Henrico Chief Circuit Judge James Yoffy sentenced him to 2½ years but said he was eligible to serve it in the ORBIT program at the county jail, a program Yoffy helped create.
But in October, state officials revoked Winston’s parole after they were notified of his new Henrico conviction. It appeared that Winston was headed back to state prison. Wade did not want to let him go and risk losing the progress he made in the jail’s ORBIT program.
Wade said, “I think we need to take some of the blame for that, really, because we’ve never advertised what we’re doing. I think that’s a big part of what happened here.”
After an inquiry from the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this month, Adrianne Bennett, chairwoman of the parole board, looked into Winston’s case and said the staff had not been aware of his participation in the program and that his revocation would be reconsidered. Then on May 17, Wade wrote a detailed letter to the board about the ORBIT program and about Winston’s success.
On Tuesday, the parole voted to continue Winston’s release, provided he return to ORBIT and complete the program. The board also extended his period of supervised release until 2021. Provided all goes well, he could be released next February.
After learning the news from a reporter on Wednesday morning, Winston — a 6-foot, 300-pound former defensive tackle — sat down and broke into tears, crying quietly for several minutes in Wade’s office.
“I was introduced to substance abuse at a very early age due to some tragic incidents in my life,” Winston began, telling the story he has repeated many times elsewhere.
The first tragedy occurred on Nov. 25, 1977. “My parents left for work and my brother was left to babysit me,” he said. Before going outside to play with friends, his brother put Latimer in his favorite chair and turned the television to his favorite show, “The Lone Ranger.”
There was a gunfight, the Lone Ranger and Tonto against the bad guys. Winston knew his father kept a rifle and ammunition in his parents’ bedroom closet. He dragged his chair to the closet and was able to reach the rifle on a shelf. He made two trips, one for the rifle and another for the ammunition.
“I put the bullets into the gun and I continued to watch TV,” he recalled.
A short time later, his brother came in to check on him and spotted the rifle. “He screamed my name,” Winston recalled. “I just immediately got up and I was walking toward him to give him the gun and I did, I reached out to give him the gun; he yanked it from me.
“But my finger was on the trigger and when he yanked it, it shot my brother, point-blank range,” he said.
“He fell to the floor,” Winston said. “I knelt down and I began to hold my brother. And while holding him, I could hear him making a noise I had never heard him make before.
“I remember laying my brother’s head down. My mom had a burgundy rug in the hallway, but it had a little white top rug. ... I remember it covered in blood, and me as well. And I got up and I went to the door to tell my brother’s friends to come here,” he said.
He planned to go to the next-door neighbors for help. But “I didn’t even get to say anything. They noticed I was covered in blood.”
Then, he said, “My brother’s best friend saw him and he just turned and ran next door to get his mom.”
A two-paragraph brief in The Times-Dispatch on Monday, Nov. 28, 1977, reported that the accident occurred the previous Friday and that Robert Winston, wounded in the abdomen by the accidental gunshot, died at the former St. Luke’s Hospital.
At the time, Latimer Winston had been very close to his father, now 82 years old, but he felt an emotional distance grow between them after the shooting. “I think it was hard at first for him to deal with me,” Winston said.
“I can remember the day, him still trying to express the same type of love, but I could tell that it was different,” he said. He said his mother died of breast cancer when he was 13.
Winston started drinking from glasses or bottles containing alcohol that his father left unfinished. When he got older, he began stealing beer from stores.
It was also around that time that he also discovered football.
“I think I was 200 pounds in the seventh grade,” he said. “I kind of used to vent on the football field. I gained a passion for it, and I loved it. But I kept getting in trouble at school. My grades [weren’t] bad, but my behavior wasn’t good at all.”
Nevertheless, he said, “I made it through to my senior year.” Among his accomplishments, he was named to the All-Colonial District First Team as a defensive lineman in 1988.
A 17-year-old senior, he and some friends planned to watch a basketball game at Henrico High School after school one evening. But before he left for school that morning, he did something he said he cannot explain.
“My dad had a locked file cabinet at this time. He had, I think, two or three pistols. And I took it, one of them, which was a .38 revolver and it was already loaded and I put it in my pocket that morning when I went to school,” he said. “I never told anybody. Not even my friends knew I had it when I went to school.”
He went to a friend’s house after school and then to the game. He still told no one. “I knew that my dad would probably kill me himself if he knew I touched a gun again. And I had that gun with me so I didn’t tell anybody,” he said.
Outside the basketball game, a fight broke out and he saw his best friend struggling with several others. He fired a shot, intending to just scare everyone. His friend, however, was hurt by a bullet ricochet off a dumpster.
“I was arrested,” he said. “At that time, my dad was pretty much fed up with me [and also] the school. I had a four-year football scholarship to the University of South Carolina and I was just waiting to go to school, and I ended up going to prison instead.”
He turned 18 at the Henrico County Jail and 19 in a state prison.
“By the time I was 20, I would be introduced to heroin — something that would take my life somewhere where I didn’t think I’d ever return from.”
He used it occasionally while in prison. When he was released at age 24, he used it as often as he could find it, later becoming addicted.
Winston went to barber school in prison and after he was released, he cut hair occasionally for income, but he did not make enough to support a heroin habit. “So I began doing whatever I could to get the money,” he said.
He was caught breaking the law and went back to prison. After his second release, while briefly clean, he got married. A son and daughter were born. Then, he started using again behind his wife’s back, and he was locked up again.
“I would go back to prison and I would use again in prison, and I would go home and I would use again,” he said. “It wasn’t until my third trip to prison [that] I realized I didn’t want to live the way that I was living, but I didn’t want to live without it altogether, either.”
He decided that when he was released the third time, he would control his heroin use. “It didn’t work. That’s how I ended up here today,” he said of the Henrico jail.
It happened in February 2017. He was waiting for his wife, who was getting her hair done, to pick him up after work. With some time on his hands, he bought two $10 bags of heroin and took them behind the barbershop where he worked.
“I opened both of them. And I put them in a dollar bill and I snorted ’em and when I came to ... many hours later, I was at Hanover Memorial Regional Hospital with a breathing machine hooked to me,” he recalled.
When he first opened his eyes, he saw a nurse standing over him. She left the room and returned with a doctor, his wife and his half brother. “They were standing there and the doctor, he said to me, ‘Glad to have you back, Mr. Winston.’ I heard him, but I couldn’t talk.”
“He said, ‘We’re lucky to have you here with us today.’ That’s when he told me I had a heartbeat of every six seconds when they brought me in.” Had it been just a bit slower, there would have been nothing that could have been done to save his life, he was told. At one point, his breathing had completely stopped and the machine was all that kept oxygen going to his brain.
He recovered in the hospital. Then, he said, “Almost 48 hours later, they brought me here to the Henrico County Jail. Again, I told myself, ‘Hey, I’m not getting high no more.’ I had said that, but I didn’t honestly believe that I could because I really didn’t know what to do or how I would stay clean.”
He asked his lawyer if he could get him into a recovery house. Judge Yoffy had other ideas and told Winston about ORBIT. Wade, the sheriff, started ORBIT after a meeting with Yoffy.
“I got to try something,” Winston thought to himself at the time.
He started out in a substance abuse treatment program at Henrico Jail East — a 12-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week, peer-run program that lasts for 12 to 18 weeks before he was transferred to ORBIT at Henrico Jail West.
In ORBIT, inmates are on work details requiring them to start preparing for life outside. Jobs include landscaping and grass cutting at county complexes, washing school buses and removing snow. They attend several Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings a week inside and outside the jail.
Wade said Winston was working the program extremely well. “He started out on the work crew and did a great job; now he’s on work release working at a barbershop. ... He’s paid off all of his fines and, for the first time in years, he’s got his driver’s license,” Wade said.
Wade had to remove Winston from the program when his parole was revoked. Now that the parole board reversed its decision, he can return to ORBIT.
Bennett, with the parole board, said she was pleased to learn about Winston’s participation in ORBIT.
“After certain parole violations, reincarceration is a necessary sanction. But the parole board recognizes that in cases like Mr. Winston’s, substance abuse treatment may be the most effective mechanism to ensure public safety and the best outcomes for the individuals we serve,” she wrote in an email.
Winston said the program helped him understand why he was making bad decisions and how to turn himself around.
“The more that I applied the stuff that I learned, I started seeing it was working,” he said.
He said this was the first time that he had gotten in trouble that “somebody came to me and said, ‘We going to figure out why you keep doing those things.’ It became something I wanted to do. That’s what’s been working for me.”
His wife, Donneshia Winston, said, “I’ve seen him go through different programs, but nothing has really worked like this one has. It’s totally structured, he has more support, and it addresses his emotional needs.”
Vithoulkas, a strong proponent of ORBIT, said Winston’s story is compelling. Noting the shooting death of his older brother, Vithoulkas said, “Carrying that tragedy with him for years, I think caused, or definitely contributed to, many of the issues that led to his addiction.
“But when I heard him speak, what I saw and heard was a man who, in spite of everything he had seen and experienced in life, he wasn’t going to give up,” he said.
Wade said that when Winston tells his story at schools, you can hear a pin drop. The students listen to Winston far more closely than they would any celebrity or authority figure, he said.
Winston, still somewhat in shock Wednesday after learning that he was not headed back to prison, said ORBIT has also allowed him to start repairing some burned bridges.
His son, a high school senior, will be leaving for college in Greensboro, N.C., later this year. His daughter is a third-year, pre-med student at Old Dominion University.
Over the years, due to his drug use and the trouble he’s been in, they had stopped calling him “dad.” His wife said they told her, “ ‘He did not act like a dad, so we don’t want to call him that anymore.’ She told me that right over there in that visiting room.”
“Today, my kids call me ‘dad’ again. I’m never letting that go,” he said, crying.