Benton Harbor — Drew Collins and Zookie McGee aren’t your typical buddies.
Collins, 33, was a dirty Benton Harbor cop whose illegal tactics sent dozens of people to prison.
One of them was McGee, 35, who served four years before the chicanery was uncovered.
McGee not only forgave Collins but became his protege in a faith-based job training program.
The two work side by side at a Benton Harbor coffee shop, Cafe Mosaic. They also have developed a close friendship.
“You couldn’t make up a story like this. It’s too unreal,” said McGee.
Collins was shocked by the absolution. A year later, he’s still trying to get his head around it.
“I’m blown away,” he said. “He doesn’t owe me that. I don’t deserve that.”
The two men travel around the country telling their story of forgiveness and redemption.
On April 24, 400 people listened to them during a Sunday service at Renaissance Unity Church in Warren.
Afterward, it seemed like all 400 wanted to meet them.
A half-hour after the service, Collins and McGee were still in the church lobby, getting handshakes, hugs, having selfies taken, exchanging contact information and listening to the personal stories of others.
“Forgiveness is a rough thing,” church member Althea Williams told them. “That’s a rough thing.”
Collins and McGee traveled from Benton Harbor, a western Michigan city long down on its luck, beset by the twin demons of poverty and crime.
In the early 2000s, police couldn’t make an arrest without coming across drugs, said officers.
The Benton Harbor Police Department didn’t have a drug unit, so Collins, hired in 2003 at age 21, took it upon himself to tackle the problem, he said.
The gung-ho rookie made so many arrests he was named Officer of the Year in 2004, his first full year as an officer.
But Collins was cutting corners, he said.
To make the charges stick, he would lie on police reports and during trials, he said. He would say he saw suspects do things they never did.
“I convinced myself the ends justified the means,” he said.
In 2005, Collins arrested a man with crack cocaine and offered to let him go if he set up a drug dealer.
The man called a dealer, asking to buy an ounce of crack for $800. They agreed to meet at a party store in Benton Harbor, with the dealer driving a Dodge Durango.
When Collins arrived, he saw a man in the parked Durango and another man, McGee, walking out of the store, said Collins. McGee looked like a local drug dealer named Ox, said Collins.
“Give me the dope,” Collins told McGee.
“You better get on,” said McGee.
Collins, wearing plain clothes, flashed his badge and repeatedly asked where the drugs were. He made McGee strip in the street.
No drugs were on McGee but police found an ounce of crack in the center cupholder of the Durango.
The driver, Reggie Williams, said it belonged to McGee. McGee, who had been a passenger in the car, said he didn’t know drugs were in the vehicle.
Williams had a criminal record for selling drugs while McGee didn’t have any drug offenses, according to court records.
In a plea bargain, Williams pleaded guilty to maintaining a drug vehicle, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced up to two years in prison.
McGee rejected a deal that would have sent him to prison for five years.
In the police report, Collins didn’t say he confronted McGee outside the store. Instead, he wrote McGee was in the car and, when police approached, made a “furtive” gesture, moving his hands toward the center cupholder.
Collins now admits that wasn’t true.
“I was convinced he was involved,” he said about McGee. “At the end of the day, I wanted a conviction.”
Based on the trial testimony of Collins and Williams, a federal jury found McGee guilty of a felony, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
When McGee was sitting in a patrol car outside the party store, he thought police would quickly realize their mistake and release him within a few minutes.
But the few minutes grew to four long years at the Federal Correctional Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana.
As McGee lost appeal after appeal, he became progressively frustrated, he said.
Before his arrest, he was normally soft-spoken and laid-back, said friends. Now his anger spiraled out of control.
He stopped talking to inmates, his prison counselor and his family, he said. If someone approached him, he lashed out.
“I was angry, bitter,” he said. “I didn’t know what to think. I couldn’t understand how something like this happened.”
He said Collins’ treachery had taken everything from him.
He resolved that, once he was released, he would seek out the rogue cop and hurt him.
Breaking the rules
After McGee’s arrest, Collins’ police career continued to blossom.
He was promoted to the drug squad, which he ran by himself before being joined by another officer, Bernard Hall.
The two men arrested so many people they were doubling and tripling the arrests by the 10-member drug squad from the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office, said Collins.
“I was addicted to the attention,” he said.
But Collins and Hall were eventually convicted of breaking the rules.
They kept some of the drugs seized in busts and used them in other cases, according to court records. They used the drugs as evidence of fabricated purchases that were used to secure warrants to search suspects’ homes.
The two cops sometimes stole money and jewelry from drug dealers, according to court records.
Collins said he once wore a Movado-like watch to the trial of the alleged drug dealer he had stolen it from.
Collins had forgotten who he had stolen the item from and, when the dealer began talking about the watch at the trial, the policeman slipped it off his wrist.
The end came in 2008, when Collins’ supervisors, acting on a tip from Hall, found a cache of marijuana, cocaine and heroin in a lockbox under Collins’ desk, according to court records.
Collins confessed everything and worked with federal prosecutors to separate his good arrests from the bad ones.
When the FBI gave him a list of 200 drug-related cases and asked him to highlight the bad ones, he said it would be easier to mark the good ones because they were fewer.
“It just eroded into an all-out free-for-all,” said Collins. “I did some really stupid things.”
Collins testified in 2010 he falsified up to 90 affidavits for search warrants.
Eventually, judges reversed the convictions of 54 people, including McGee.
In a plea deal, Collins was sentenced to 37 months in a federal prison after pleading guilty to the same charge McGee had been convicted of — possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
U.S. District Judge Robert Bell told Collins his actions cast a shadow over the criminal justice system that would take a long time to remove.
“Nothing is more poisonous than a police officer who is manufacturing criminal procedure,” said Bell. “You make it harder for judges to be judges. You make it harder for police officers to be police officers.”
Hall, who said Collins was the ringleader, was sentenced to 30 months.
Collins entered prison on Jan. 26, 2009, and, nine days later, McGee was released.
After leaving prison, McGee flitted from job to job.
In 2011 he brought his 5-year-old son to a Hoops, Hip Hop and Hot Dogs festival at a Benton Harbor park.
Collins, released from prison after 18 months, was a volunteer at the festival.
McGee walked up to Collins and asked if he remembered him. Collins did and the two men shook hands.
McGee gripped Collins’ hand tightly and wouldn’t let go. All the anger he felt in prison came flooding back.
“His whole countenance changed,” said Collins. “I thought, this is about to get bad.”
McGee told Collins to tell his son why McGee had been missing from his life for four years.
Collins apologized profusely but McGee didn’t want to hear it. He grabbed his son and walked away.
Mentor and protege
After the confrontation, McGee began seeing Collins everywhere — in Walmart, outside Meijer. When McGee walked out the door of his home, Collins would be driving past.
Collins was a church volunteer involved in community work all over town.
Last year, McGee enrolled in a job training program run by Mosaic Christian Community Development Association, a group of local churches.
After three weeks, trainees receive a mentor.
McGee couldn’t believe the mentor suggested by the program. It was his old nemesis, the guy he couldn’t seem to get away from — Collins, who had finished his prison term.
“What in the world?” he told himself.
The program director who paired the two didn’t know their history with each other.
Unlike McGee, who waited several years before going through the program, Collins went through it shortly after his release from prison in 2010.
McGee went to meet Collins at the association’s Cafe Mosaic, where Collins was the manager.
Collins, who didn’t recognize McGee, explained he had been a police officer and that, if he had ever had any dealings with McGee and mistreated him, he was sorry.
McGee said they’ve already had this talk, referring to the meeting at the park.
When McGee said who he was, Collins began apologizing, but the smiling McGee cut him off.
“That’s already forgiven,” he said. “God has that.”
When joining the program, McGee had resolved to make changes in his life.
After living in his brother’s car for more than a year, he wanted to make something of himself.
The program helped by giving him clothes to wear to training classes and a bicycle to get there.
Through the program and his faith, he felt the anger lifting off him.
When he met Collins at the coffee shop, he was ready to open his heart to the man who had closed it a decade earlier.
“I stopped being the angry bird,” said McGee. “It’s not just about him and me. The bigger story is God working through us. If we can do it, imagine how the world can be.”