David Van Horn, convicted murderer, baker and jewelry-maker, talked easily with customers Saturday in a makeshift marketplace at the Penitentiary of New Mexico.
Van Horn, 39, has spent half his life in prison for a crime rampage near Lordsburg. He and a female cohort terrorized an older couple, then set fire to their home. A 68-year-old woman died in the fire.
With his bald pate and orange jumpsuit, Van Horn looked like many of the other 40 inmates who sold their wares at the penitentiary’s first Hobby Craft Fair.
His crimes were more violent than those of the other prisoners, but Van Horn had plenty in common with the rest. All of those allowed to sell their products at the fair are now classified as minimum-security inmates who are within five years of being released, said state Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel.
Van Horn is scheduled to be freed in July, after 20 years in prison.
Marcantel said he and his staff are trying to prepare the prisoners for a successful transition to lives in the business world. By giving them a chance to sell the jewelry, artworks and blankets they have made, the prisoners are getting an understanding of what awaits them on the outside.
For that reason, Marcantel said he regretted naming the event a hobby fair. This is all about business, so next time it should be renamed as a trades and crafts exposition, he said.
A former sheriff’s captain in Bernalillo County, Marcantel spent 32 years chasing criminals. Now, he said, he is trying to reduce the chance that the criminals his prison system releases will harm anybody else.
“I’ve done so many death announcements, calling someone to give them the worst news possible,” Marcantel said. “This is about protecting people. This ain’t about hugging inmates.”
Van Horn, originally from Arizona, said he hopes to stay in Santa Fe when he is released from the Penitentiary of New Mexico.
He learned to be baker while in prison and says he would like to work for a restaurant. He also makes earrings, bracelets and other jewelry, and said this skill could be a sidelight for him once he’s free.
Van Horn now donates profits from his sales to a Ronald McDonald House that provides for families of sick children.
He doesn’t deny the brutality of his crimes. Van Horn says he was a methamphetamine addict when he helped take a life and hurt countless other people in the fallout. Still, he says, there is no excuse for what he did.
“At any point, I could have said ‘no,’ ” Van Horn said.
But now, like the rest of the inmates, he said he is a changed man, one who never again wants to be a prisoner.
Two of the more successful salesmen on Saturday were inmates from the prison in Springer. Tommy Singer sold carvings of his miniature black bears at a fast clip. Fellow inmate Joseph Franklin helped him man the table.
Marcantel said they had a good product — the black bear is the state animal of New Mexico — and they priced it reasonably, resulting in the crisp sales.
Singer, 49, is to be freed from prison Jan. 1. He has served about 18 months for nonresidential burglary.
He said he had experimented with sculpting alabaster but became skilled with wood during his prison stretch. He may return to the Navajo Nation, but his firm plan is to live an upright life, he said.
Franklin, a burly former bricklayer from Hobbs, also is close to freedom after serving about seven years for residential burglary, though he says he actually kicked in doors as an enforcer in an illegal drug trade.
Franklin readily admits he used powder cocaine during his days as a lawbreaker. Now, he says, he wants nothing to do with drugs.
“I’m killin’ my number. I’ll be home in about six weeks,” Franklin said.
Across the way was Billy Kerr, scheduled for release from prison in May after serving more than three years of a five-year sentence for forgery, receiving stolen property, burglary and other crimes.
His graphite pencil drawings of Jesus and John Wayne looked good enough to be on shelves of retail stores in Santa Fe.
“I’ve been drawing seriously for 10 years,” said Kerr, 38.
He said he became a methamphetamine addict and descended into crime. Kerr’s wife also is imprisoned, doing a longer sentence than he is. They have three children, he said, 6-year-old twins and boy who is 3 1/2.
“He was born about the time I went to prison,” Kerr said.
His hope is to return to work as a driller in the oil fields near Roswell. He knows he may not regain custody of his children, but he says he wants to be part of their lives.
Then there was Monica Gallegos, 39, selling pillows, blankets and other household goods. She is about 13 months away from freedom, meaning she would end up serving half of a 12-year sentence for drug trafficking.
“It was a horrible life,” she said, pleasant even as she discussed unhappy chapters.
She said religious fervor has gripped her, and she won’t commit anymore crimes.
Marcantel and his staff always call prisons the “corrections system.” Gallegos said the term is accurate because her years behind bars straightened her out. “My life is totally for God now,” she said.
Marcantel asked how the inmates behaved. He smiled when he was told that all of them were courteous, calm and as professional as one could be in Syracuse orange.
“I’m real proud of these guys. They’re doing a good job,” Marcantel said.
He plans to hold two trades and crafts fairs for prisoners each year. The number of exhibitors should grow as word spreads about the importance of being ready to work once paroles or outright releases are granted to inmates.
Marcantel allowed inmates from 1o of the 11 state prisons to attend the event this weekend. He excluded inmates from a prison for sex offenders. They can sell their works, but they won’t be allowed to attend any of the fairs, he said.
Marcantel often says 96 percent of the state’s 7,000 prison inmates will return to a neighborhood someday. He hopes that showcasing their works will put more of them on track to obeying the law.
“I’m convinced there is a fine line between impulsivity and creativity,” Marcantel said.