- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009


A slug from a .357-caliber Magnum ended Ken Cooper’s 13-year career as a bank robber and started him on the path toward redemption and a network of five prison ministries.

Mr. Cooper describes the moment he encountered a sheriff’s deputy as he walked out of his last score in 1982.

“As if in slow motion, fire flashed from the shooter’s pistol. The plate glass exploded into fragments, coming at me like glistening darts. A slug slammed into my chest, knocking me backward. Shards of glass pierced and sliced my skin. Fire burned in my chest. Someone screamed, the sound bouncing around my mind like an echo. Everything faded to black,” Mr. Cooper wrote in his book, “Held Hostage: A Serial Bank Robber’s Road to Redemption.”

Mr. Cooper details his double life as a respectable husband, father and “gentleman bank robber” and the punishment for his crimes: Spending a few years in “the Rock,” Florida’s toughest prison, known for its murders, rapes and suicides.

But before he got there, he says, he found Christ in a county jail while awaiting sentencing. He wrote that his conversion occurred after he fell to his knees and prayed, “Jesus, I’m a horrible sinner; please come into my heart and change me. I’ve made a terrible mess of my life - and the lives of others.”

After being released from prison about four years later, Mr. Cooper co-founded five prison ministries in Florida, which have sponsored more than 2,000 men coming out of prisons.

They are Prisoners of Christ, 20/20 World Vision, and Ken Cooper Prison Ministry, in Jacksonville; House of Hope in Gainesville and Mercy House in Tallahassee.

The ministries provide inmates with a place to stay and help with their adjustment to life outside prison. They teach classes on overcoming addiction at Lawtey Correctional Institution, one of the state’s four faith- and character-based prisons. There are also seven facilities with faith-based/self-improvement dorms. Together, they can house 4,855 inmates.

The faith-based prisons are an effort to reduce the number of people returning to prison by offering character-based programming for prisoners.

“A hundred times a year, my wife and I conduct worship services and discipleship classes in prisons where we share the good news that God will save and deliver ‘a wretch like me’ through Jesus Christ,” Mr. Cooper said.

He’s donating 1,000 copies of his book, published by Chosen Books, to Florida’s 67 prisons in hopes of helping current inmates.

“Ken Cooper is the real deal. He is a prison success story who holds out hope for inmates who want to make changes and family members of inmates who hope change is possible,” said Chaplain Alex S. Taylor, the head chaplain for the Florida Department of Corrections.

Now a mild-mannered 72-year-old grandfather of six and great-grandfather of nine, Mr. Cooper began holding up banks for the thrill it provided.

“Pulling holdups is about that adrenaline rush - staring down death. It’s not in me to hurt people, and it’s really not about the money,” Mr. Cooper said, adding he averaged about $8,800 per bank.

His “banking job” ended when he was shot July 26, 1982, by a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy who was responding to an alarm at the Exchange Bank in Tampa.

Mr. Cooper remembers his terror of the possibility of being raped and assaulted when he entered jail. He was sentenced to 99 years but under Florida’s laws at the time, he only served a fraction of it.

“They lurked like vultures eyeing roadkill,” Mr. Cooper wrote. “In my fear I grimaced but continued to pump myself up. I will not show weakness. God is with me. I’m not afraid.”

He was later transferred to the Rock, a notorious walled fortress inside Union Correctional Institution in Raiford. Mr. Cooper said he learned his lesson.

Throughout his ordeals, Mr. Cooper said he turned to two books, the Bible and a book by Robert H. Schuller, when dealingwith angry inmates and tense situations.

He said he told a parole examiner: “Well, two years of hard time at the Rock convinced me that prison is not the place for me, and I’m determined to never do anything again to get myself locked up. I won’t even spit on the sidewalk, much less look at a bank.”

When he was released from prison, Mr. Cooper worked as a newspaper reporter before beginning his ministry.

“I believe God released me at His chosen time, however, so I could fulfill His plan for my life. To express my deep gratitude and devotion, I am serving a life sentence as a prisoner of Jesus Christ,” Mr. Cooper wrote.

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