TABOR CITY — Last fall, Jeffrey Dale Suggs was stumbling through life as a backwoods hermit, holed up inside a pull-camper the size of a jail cell, eating whatever he could shoot.
At 43, his life had sunk into a swamp of his own making, mostly due to a long history of break-ins and drunken driving. Suggs had no job, no driver’s license and no income beside food stamps, cash from odd jobs and his aunt’s charity.
His trailer burned down, so his uncle let him borrow a shotgun and huddle in the camper with his coon dog, Dusty. They ate deer hams, parboiled turtle and chicken stew with squirrel – scraping by in the Orange County woods.
But Suggs’ survivalist Plan B collapsed in November when he got arrested for an illegal deer hunt. He admits he had no hunting license, was trespassing on a neighbor’s land and – a big no-no – possessed a firearm as a convicted felon. Worse, the gun he borrowed from his uncle turned out to be stolen.
Considering his record, the Orange County courts prosecuted Suggs as a habitual felon, sending him to medium-security prison for a minimum of 5.5 years.
That’s more than 2,000 days Suggs must spend in the pen for the crime of trying to feed himself. I’m calling that a tad excessive. There’s a guy in my neighborhood who served only a year behind bars for dealing cocaine.
So I drove down to Tabor City, just a few miles from the South Carolina border on Swamp Fox Road, to visit this public enemy with a taste for wild game. Five years? Really?
“It’s stupid as hell,” Suggs told me. “I ain’t bothering anybody. I’m trying to get me something to (flipping) eat.”
Suggs is no Jean Valjean, the street-urchin hero of “Les Misérables,” thrown in prison for stealing bread to feed his starving family. His trouble with the law dates back to 1989 and fills several pages of court records. At the prison in Tabor City, Suggs told me that he once went on a beer run for a friend, riding his three-wheeler to the store, and he offered this warning as he drove away: “If I don’t come back, it means I’m in jail.”
But you get the feeling Suggs was at least trying to stay out of trouble, living in the woods as he was. He spent six months in that camper, selling scrap metal and fixing up a neighbor’s window for money. His aunt brought him food, and the Red Cross tried, too. He got power via a long extension cord.
“It’s not big enough for me to be in there,” Suggs said.
When he hunted, he rode his bicycle to a deer stand near Antioch Baptist Church on White Cross Road – the area he’d lived all his life.
On the day the game warden stopped him, he’d been looking for a deer he’d hit a few days earlier. He told the game warden he’d been hunting squirrel, which wasn’t true. He explained that he’d gotten the gun from his uncle, who’d borrowed it from a neighbor for $65. The neighbor apparently needed money to pay child support, but he didn’t want to lose a nice Remington for good.
It sounds like a made-up story, doesn’t it? But I don’t live in the world where people rent guns to one another and use them to eat what they can kill. Suggs does.
I believe him on this count because he told me about his squirrel-hunting fib and because he told the authorities about the .22-caliber rifle he had hidden, which couldn’t have helped his case.
“I shouldn’t have told him I had the gun in the closet,” Suggs says now.
His lawyer, a public defender, thinks he’ll be able to arrange for a better sentence. But in the mean time, Suggs waits.
There’s no excuse for stealing or for driving drunk. But Suggs paid that price. Do you hang that history around his neck, turn him loose in the world and punish him when he eats the only way he knows how?
And when he inevitably breaks the rules, do you put him in a prison full of violent offenders and keep him there until he’s practically 50? Is he really the guy we have in mind when we think habitual offender?
Where do you think Jeffrey Dale Suggs is going to go when he gets out?
He told me he’s hoping for something better, but I’m going to lay odds he’s back in that camper, stalking game for his stew.
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