AKRON, Ohio (AP) — At the age of 15, Christopher Hendon was on his way to following in the footsteps of several relatives who had spent much of their lives behind bars.
In three years, the Akron teen had been charged with 17 crimes.
A tough-talking Summit County magistrate warned Hendon that if she saw him again, he'd go to juvenile prison until he turned 21. The threat got through to Hendon, and he veered onto the path of a law-abiding life.
Years later, when Hendon began working with Akron youths who were getting into trouble, he says he wanted to give them the second chance he received.
His Scared Straight efforts, however, landed him back on the wrong side of the law and he was sentenced last week to nearly six years in prison after pleading guilty to 31 charges, including impersonating a police officer and kidnapping.
Hendon agreed to talk to the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com before his sentencing to share the story of how he arrived at the point where he will spend at least the next 18 months behind bars. It was the first time he had spoken publicly since his arrest in late April that made national news.
Prosecutors say Hendon tricked parents and local officials into thinking he was an officer and used this ruse to gain access to youths. They accused him of verbally and physically abusing the kids by handcuffing them and, in some instances, slamming them onto the floor or against cabinets, lockers, desks or chairs.
Hendon, himself the father figure to a 7-year-old boy, denies ever hurting any child.
"As I see it, I was trying to help some troubled kids," Hendon, 26, said during a recent exclusive interview in his attorneys' office. "Why would I want to harm someone I was trying to help?"
From the age of 12 to 15, Hendon was in and out of Summit County Juvenile Court on criminal charges.
Burglary. Receiving stolen property. Inciting a riot.
He admits to hanging with the wrong crowd and taking advantage of his mother working three jobs and the less-watchful eye of his older sister.
That changed when Magistrate Denise McGuckin gave Hendon a lecture that changed his life.
"This is it," he recalls her telling him. "Enough is enough. If I see you again, you will be gone until you're 21."
The idea of spending the next six years in youth prison, a place he had so far avoided, scared Hendon.
About the same time, Hendon switched to Buchtel High School after being kicked out of Garfield for fighting and other misdeeds. He said he felt at home with teachers who were more apt to chew him out than suspend him.
"Instead of me getting mad, I looked at it as a blessing," he said. "It was almost like having Mom in the classroom: 'I love you and I want you to strive to do your best. Sit your ass down and do it!' "
Hendon served as an office helper at Buchtel and often walked the halls with the Akron police officers assigned to the school. If he heard about a fight, he let the officers know. Officer Sean Taylor encouraged Hendon to join the Akron Police Explorers, a program for young people who hope to one day be officers.
Hendon found that he not only enjoyed but also excelled at the program, which involves hands-on instruction in how police respond to different situations. At a state competition in 2008, Hendon and three others in the Akron program scored top honors. He still has his "Explorer of the Year" award.
He continued with the Explorers program even after his graduation from Buchtel in 2009, volunteering his time.
Striving to be cop
Hendon enrolled in the University of Phoenix, an online school, in 2013 and received his associate's degree in criminal justice two years later.
He took the test to be an Akron police officer and failed. He admits to being nervous — and to not studying enough. The next time the test was offered, he did better, scoring 121st out of 800 applicants.
Hendon hit a snag with his background check. He provided a printout of all of his juvenile charges, but a police supervisor told him there was no way he'd get accepted with that long list.
He went to see Magistrate McGuckin, who looked at how Hendon had graduated from high school, received his associate's degree and had no charges besides a traffic ticket since she'd last seen him. He said she agreed to expunge his juvenile record, gave him a hug and told him she wished he'd come back to talk to kids in the court.
With that hurdle cleared, Hendon was on a waiting list to become an Akron officer.
Hendon started at Kent State University's police academy in September 2016. He was in a class of 25 that included many people with military experience. He was initially named his class's vice president.
"It was great," he said. "I was learning and getting experience."
His time in the academy came to an abrupt end in January 2017 when he was called into the office. On the computer screen, Hendon saw a Soulja Boy Challenge video he had posted on Facebook of himself riffing the rapper describing being robbed.
Hendon said he had meant his video as a joke, but his academy superiors weren't amused.
"There was a lack of maturity and focus on why he was there," said Cuyahoga Falls Capt. Perry Tabak, who was the commander of Hendon's academy class. "It wasn't necessarily one thing with Chris . It came down to judgment."
Hendon was given the option to withdraw, rather than be expelled, which meant he could try again.
Hendon was crushed and out $4,200. He continued working several places as a state-registered security guard. While on the job, he wore a black vest bearing his name and carried a gun for which he had a concealed-carry permit.
Hendon hadn't lost hope of becoming an officer and planned to apply for Stark State College's police academy in September 2017.
But by then, he had been arrested.
Scared Straight effort
Hendon's Scared Straight effort began with a Facebook post in March 2017 in which he offered to talk to kids who were having disciplinary issues.
To his surprise, he received 237 responses and 29 inbox messages.
He admits to having nothing close to a plan when he picked up his first charge, a 7-year-old boy.
"You like to fight?" he asked the boy, who didn't answer.
"I'll take you somewhere where fighters go," he told him.
Hendon drove the boy to the Summit County Juvenile Detention Center, where he told a deputy at the metal detector that the boy had been acting up. He said the deputy took him and the boy to a nearby holding cell.
"Is this where you want to be?" Hendon asked the boy sitting in the small cell.
When Hendon took the boy home, the youth apologized to his mother for being bad.
Hendon asked the boy's mother if he could post pictures on Facebook he'd taken of the boy, including of him sitting in the holding cell and smiling in the back seat of Hendon's car. She agreed and said her son's behavior had improved.
After Hendon posted these pictures, he was flooded with requests for help. He opted to concentrate on Akron youths and to work with them around his security jobs. He sometimes picked the youths up in groups of three or four.
Most of the time, Hendon said, he drove the youths around and lectured them about what he pointed to as the three most important things in life: family, education and God. If he came across adults he knew had been in trouble in the past, he had them to talk to the youths. Several times, he took the kids to a park or nearby store to pick up trash.
"I was just really trying to make a change in the community some way, somehow," Hendon said.
Hendon said he brought youths to the detention center four times and only went past the metal detector the first time.
Hendon said he once took two older teenage boys to the Summit County Jail, where a deputy in the parking lot told him they couldn't go inside. This deputy and another deputy, however, split the boys off and talked to them about the consequences of disobeying the law.
Several of the youths Hendon worked with attended Leggett elementary school in Akron and Middlebury Academy, a charter school in Akron. Hendon said parents would sometimes ask him to go to their child's school when they got a call that the youth was misbehaving and they weren't able to get off work.
"The schools were on board," Hendon said. "I didn't go in robo-copping, slamming kids, bullying kids. I was big-brother like, telling them, 'You have to learn how to respect adults.' "
When Hendon worked with the youths, he said he was often wearing his security guard uniform and carrying a weapon because it was before or after one of his jobs.
Hendon said most of the parents knew he wasn't an officer but aspired to be one. He left it up to the parents whether he should handcuff their children.
In all, he said, he worked with 30 to 40 youths between late March and mid-April.
Hendon thinks the main thing he did wrong was not having a better plan.
"I was so used to having a weapon — it was like a normal piece of clothing, so I didn't think about taking it into a building," he said. "It was rushed. It wasn't planned out."
Arrest halts effort
Hendon's efforts came to the attention of authorities April 6 when he attempted to enter the Summit County Juvenile Detention Center with a firearm and three young children, two who were in handcuffs.
This prompted an investigation by the Summit County Sheriff's Office, which provides security at the detention center. Deputies determined that Hendon wasn't a police officer or affiliated with any official Scared Straight program.
Hendon initially was charged with four counts of illegal conveyance of a deadly weapon into a courthouse, four counts of criminal trespass and four counts of impersonating a police officer.
After his arrest, the Summit County Sheriff's Office asked for the parents of any children who had dealt with Hendon to come forward.
The case mushroomed from there, resulting in his indictment in June on 60 charges involving 13 youths.
Hendon was scheduled to go on trial in February, but instead pleaded guilty in January to 31 charges that encompassed offenses with each of the young victims. He said he feared getting more prison time if he went to trial and lost.
He was sentenced Wednesday to five years and 11 months in prison, which means he will be eligible for an early release in 18 months, depending on his behavior behind bars.
With his new convictions, though, he will never be able to become an officer or legally carry a firearm.
Three parents spoke at his sentencing, discussing the toll that Hendon's actions took on their children.
Shanti Portis said her 6-year-old son has nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder and is undergoing counseling.
Louis and Roslyn Christian said they hold Hendon and the Akron school district responsible for what happened to their 8-year-old son because the district gave Hendon access to the boy.
Don Malarcik, who represented Hendon along with attorney Noah Munyer, said his client was responding to a need in the community for help with children who have chronic disciplinary problems. He said Hendon, though, broke the law by taking a weapon into facilities such as schools where it was prohibited.
While the criminal case is closed, a civil lawsuit appears likely.
Attorneys Eddie Sipplen and Ed Gilbert are representing the parents of some of the children in the case.
Sipplen, who spoke to parents at Hendon's sentencing, said it's still being decided who will be sued.
"There were a lot of people who dropped the ball in regards to this situation," Sipplen said.
Hendon said he doesn't blame anyone, but wishes people who knew about his effort had come to his aid after his arrest.
As for his time in prison, Hendon plans to keep his head down and take classes.
He said he never wanted to follow the path of his two uncles, Eric and Michael, who are serving life sentences for a triple murder in Barberton, or his father, who was in and out of prison.
He also wants to spend time thinking about how he can help young people when he's released.
Munyer, one of his defense attorneys, said Hendon might be able to share his experiences with youths so they can learn from them.
"This experience is one hell of a story," Munyer said. "You've just got to do it the right way."
Information from: Akron Beacon Journal, http://www.ohio.com