Lester Young Jr. knows firsthand how succumbing to the pressures of gangs and violence can lead to poor choices and a lifetime of consequences.
A Hilton Head Island native, Young was swept up in the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s. He made the choice to start selling crack, which led to a drug-possession arrest as a teenager -- and later, a murder conviction.
On Christmas Eve 1991, Young Jr. shot a 29-year-old man once in the chest on Muddy Creek Road during a "drug deal gone bad," the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office said at the time. Young and the man had a history -- he had "ripped off" drugs from Young before, the victim's wife testified at Young's trial.
A witness to the shooting testified during Young's trial the man had tried to steal crack from Young and speed off. Young was able to stop the car and a struggled ensued in which the man was shot. He was found dead in a car parked outside Hilton Head Elementary School.
Young and another teen were arrested two days later.
Just 19, Young was convicted of murder after a short trial in April 1992 and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
He served 22 years -- time he used to turn his life around -- before being released in 2013.
Now a motivational speaker who talks about the power of smart choices, Young will be the first speaker for a new group determined to curb violence on Hilton Head Island.
"I made a choice to sell drugs over getting an education," he said. "It took going to prison to realize the value of education."
Young will speak at the Richard Cyr Community Center at the Hilton Head Public Service District at 21 Oak Park Drive from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Young was an ideal candidate to kick off the series, given his troubled youth and successful turnaround, group member Herbert Ford said in a news release.
"Mr. Young has agreed to speak frankly about his life and experiences growing up on Hilton Head and how he made some personal choices that resulted in his long-term incarceration," Ford said. "His presentation is geared toward sparking a realistic vision of what could happen to anyone who fails to take advantage of the educational resources and opportunities of professional development."
Ford and Young's father knew each other from school and church, Young said.
Ford said last week the local group was formed in response to violent tragedies involving teens or young adults over the last year. Those include 17-year-old Dominique Williams, who was shot to death at Coligny Beach on July 19, and 21-year-old Rhashard Spikes, who was shot to death near The Oaks apartment complex Aug. 4.
Ford said he and about six others began meeting two months ago to try to curb the violence on Hilton Head, after seeing little done following previous violent incidents involving teens or young adults. Their new group is aimed at people between the ages of 13 and 25 years old.
Young said it took him almost five years to come to terms with his crimes and the ripple effect he had on the victim's family. He spent those first five years "blaming everyone around him" for his plight, he said.
He began attending classes offered in prison in his fifth year, where he said he read his first book ever. He began to come to terms with what he had done and realized he needed to change his life.
Young has never been able to contact his victim's family -- a letter he sent from prison was undelivered and state law prevents him from reaching out -- but he said he carries the weight of his actions with him each day as he attempts to atone for his past choices.
"I knew I couldn't change my prior choices, but I could begin the process of atoning for the mistakes I made and start making a difference in someone's life," he said.
After about 10 years in prison, he began teaching other inmates who were interested in bettering themselves. He began to read books on business and entrepreneurship, obtaining his GED and an associate degree in business management from Ashworth College.
While in prison, Young also decided he wanted to help at-risk youth. He began speaking to groups of teens who would visit the prison or as a guest on radio shows, telling his story and urging listeners not to follow his path into a life of crime.
After he was released in 2013, Young founded the nonprofit Path2Redemption Institute that helps former inmates with housing, support groups and basic life skills essential for a successful transition back into society.
Young also conducts workshops for teens and young adults, urging them to make smart choices to keep them out of jail. Young's courses and lectures are based partly from journals he kept during his incarceration.
Young's lecture Jan. 9 will be the first of several sponsored by the new Hilton Head antiviolence group. Several others who have been incarcerated have contacted the group and want to talk about their experiences and how they've bettered their lives and stayed out of prison, Ford said.
The group also plans sessions on careers, conflict management, financial management, college options and culture.
For now, the group does not have an official name, but that may change if it grows. Ford said he hoped that organizations already geared toward local youth on the island would begin similar events, negating the need for a new group to officially form.
For now, he and the others involved in setting up the January event want the focus to be on the message, not the people behind it.
"Our objective is to foster the spiritual growth, intellectual development, personal maturation, Gullah cultural enrichment, professional exposure and networking potential for our youth participants," Ford said. "We are reaching out to our educational, civic and religious leaders, and community and business partners for their support in making our objective a reality."
For more information or to register youth for the program, call 240-485-7671.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.
- Where are they now?: Mom of Dominique Williams speaks out after son's death in Coligny shooting, Dec. 12, 2015