By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
One of 1st Step's early projects was Chris Doherty, a 33-year-old father who was on the verge of getting sentenced to 17 years in jail as a repeat drug offender. Mark Skipper was representing Doherty, but the defense attorney was at his wit's end. He felt like the young man was incorrigible, like there wasn't a chance in the world he could get sober. Every time Doherty finagled out of a drug charge, he hit the streets looking for crack. He had stolen from his boss, hocked his own electronics, lied to his wife, and even brought his two-month-old daughter out on drug runs. Skipper stopped representing him.
Skipper referred Doherty to Richard Entriken, who still saw a glimmer of hope for the young man. Entriken showed up at his sentencing and pleaded with Judge Richard Eade to turn Chris Doherty over to the 1st Step Sober House rather than send him to jail. The judge relented.
"I didn't know how to stay clean," Doherty says. "I thought I had bad luck." Richard Entriken gave him hope, somehow teaching him how to live without drugs or alcohol. Chris Doherty shocked the hell out of people by getting clean. Doherty, now 43, points to a framed certificate hanging inside the 1st Step office that attests to his graduation from the program. Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" plays on the radio.
"I'm class of '97. OK," Doherty says. "That was one of Richard's biggest things — he'd ask for alumni, and class of '97 reporting in. He loved that. I'm one of his greatest success stories. I was able to reinvent my life."
A few years later, around 2000, the original founders of 1st Step had a falling out. Gary Recht had started using again. And John Williams disagreed with some of Richard Entriken's methods — such as soliciting clients from jail cells and courtrooms. "I was not crazy about having these prisoners in there," Williams says. Some residents, he adds, were complaining that Entriken was keeping them up late at night with stories and chitchat. Williams recalls saying, "Richard, do not come around here because as an owner they feel obligated to listen to you."
If Entriken had a flaw, Williams suggests, it was the way he seemed to play to the crowd. "He loved to see his success," Williams says. "I think he fed off it. He liked to look at someone and say, 'That guy is alive today because of me.' One of the reasons I think he liked to pontificate was to impress these guys. Then you get into that hero worship stuff, which is bullshit. You did the work. I only showed you the way."
Williams says he bought Recht and Entriken out of the partnership, and that Entriken got to keep the 1st Step name.
Until then, Entriken had been helping men find sobriety in his spare time while holding down a sales job at the security firm ADT. But now he was convinced that he should do it full-time. He found a few roach-infested buildings in a rough section of Pompano, lined up new partners, and presented his wife Sandra with this plan: He'd pick up some odd jobs on the weekends, and the family would live off her income until the sober house started to generate a profit.
"I was scared, financially," Sandra remembers. "But I just wanted him to be happy." As he drove her past the target properties, though, she remembers squinting and saying repeatedly, "Are you sure?"
Chris Doherty had been spending a lot of time at 1st Step, helping other men reshape their lives. So Entriken asked him to join the business. Chris explains the principle of giving back, talking as if Richard is still there: "I should be in hell for half the things I've done, just like my partner. Just like everybody here. We've broken a lot of laws, hurt a lot of people in the past. There's wreckage we're constantly cleaning up. Both Richard and I, our service to the community is how we make amends on a daily basis."
Richard Entriken seemed to work around the clock. "I always told him he was gonna die of a heart attack," Sandra says with a dry laugh. She remembers the phone ringing at all hours with residents from the house calling about childish stuff like "my roommate stole my blanket." Richard was like a father to many of them. Some even affectionately referred to him as their "old man."
To show appreciation, those he helped reach recovery might offer him a cigar after an AA meeting. If they were really looking for approval, though, they'd try to follow in his footsteps and take on a leadership role at 1st Step. Those devotees were the equivalent of honors students.
For Richard and his imitators, the duties included showing up at the main courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale, perhaps five days a week, in a sharp-looking suit at half-past eight in the morning. Pro bono, they'd strut into six or more court hearings a day to vouch for defendants desperate for time in a halfway house instead of jail. Sure, plenty of those defendants would just be looking to beat a prison rap. But others would truly want to get their acts together. And how could anyone tell them apart?